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'A powerful tool': How does the new Covid-19 contact tracing app work?

The app launched late last night.

A screenshot of the Covid-19 contact-tracing app.
A screenshot of the Covid-19 contact-tracing app.

THE LONG-PROMISED Covid-19 contact tracing app has launched – it’s live, downloadable and apparently ready to help the health authorities tackle the spread of the virus. 

Health minister Stephen Donnelly said this morning that he’s downloaded the app, as did Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney. So have over 400,000 others, at least according to app registration figures.

This morning, Donnelly called it a “powerful” tool. 

So what does it actually do and how does it work?

Firstly, you’ve got to download it. Like other apps, it can be downloaded from app stores on phones with iOS and Android operating systems – just search Covid-19 tracker Ireland or something similar. 

The app will only be functional on iPhones that support iOS 13.5 and higher, or on Android phones running 6.0 or higher. 

What does it do?

The app is intended to help contact tracing. It uses Bluetooth technology to determine whether you’ve been a close contact of someone who’s tested positive for the virus. That doesn’t mean this app will tell you if you have Covid-19, but it should be able to tell you if you’ve been in contact with someone who has since been diagnosed with the virus. 

When you download it, the app will ask for permission to collect and share anonymous data in order to facilitate contact tracing, while it will also ask for your phone number – although you don’t have to give it. 

The premise is quite simple and is set out in the app’s terms and conditions section: “The app records if users are in close contact with another app user. If an app user tests positive for Covid-19 the app will notify any app users that have been closer than two metres for more than 15 minutes.”

That definition matches up with the HSE’s clinical definition of who counts as a close contact. 

The technology has been developed using a method devised by Apple and Google, but the government insists that none of the information in the app will be shared with the tech giants. 

It was created in collaboration with the Government Chief Information Officer and An Garda Síochána, together with technical partners from the Irish private sector (Expleo, Nearform, Information Security Assurance Services Ltd (ISAS), and EdgeScan) and scientific partners from Science Foundation Ireland. 

The app also doesn’t need location data. 

Image from iOS (11) Over 60,000 people have already downloaded the app.

What else does it do?

The app isn’t just for contact-tracing. People can also track their own symptoms and share that information with the HSE. 

The app tells users that “anonymous information about how many people have symptoms, at any time, helps us plan how we are going to win the fight against Covid-19″. 

To use the ‘Covid-19 check-in’, people are asked to provide details on their gender, county of residence and even locality – although none of this is mandatory. 

If you tell the app that you don’t have any symptoms, it encourages you to come back the next day to keep the data up to date. 

According to app data, over 268,000 people have checked-in today. 

Experts have stressed that these apps only succeed if there is significant take-up. In Europe, Germany’s app has proved largely successful – with more than 14 million downloads. But with a population of 83 million people, that’s a relatively small proportion of the country with the app on their phones. 

The app also provides the latest information on Covid-19 cases, deaths and hospitalisations. 

However, officials stressed that the primary purpose of the app is contact tracing – everything else is just secondary. 

Close contact

If you turn on notifications from the app, you’ll get an alert if you are a close contact. 

If that’s the case, you’ll be asked to follow public health advice and limit your movements. 

If your phone number is added to the app, the HSE says it’ll call you to arrange a test. 

If you haven’t added your phone number, you’ll be given a phone number to ring. 

Image from iOS (12) The Covid-19 check-in section of the app.

Age

Only people over 16 are permitted to use the app. “We agonised over that,” said Muiris O’Connor, the Assistant Secretary in the Department of Health’s Research, Development and Health analytics division. 

He said that the “key thing” was that the digital age of consent in Ireland is 16, as set out in the Data Protection Act 2018. 

However, there is nothing to stop anyone below the age of 16 downloading the app, if they did choose to lie about their age, nor does there seem to be anything to prevent parents giving permission to a child to download the app.

Upgrades

The weeks to come will see some upgrades and changes to the app, depending on how the roll-out goes. In a briefing with journalists this afternoon, officials involved in the app development stressed that it wouldn’t be a static project. 

“We wanted to have a stable app on launch and not launch it and then two days later have another update,” said Interim Chief Information Officer at the HSE, Fran Thompson. 

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“We’re going to look at a bundle of updates and try and do them on a regular, but spread out, basis,” he said. 

Staff also insisted that the app would be very different from commercial developments – there is no attempt to gamify the app or encourage people to keep on clicking in. 

That means there’s more of an onus on the user to turn checking the app’s features – such as the Covid-19 symptom tracker – into a daily habit themselves. 

“You could gamify it, but we’re not going to go there. This is around public effort and keeping it in the public consciousness, and that’s what we will do,” Thompson said. 

Will it work?

That remains to be seen. At the start of the crisis, contact tracing apps were hailed as a major part of the solution. As the months have gone on, some governments have somewhat downplayed the value and stressed the strength of manual contact tracing. 

There’ll be more information released at a Department of Health launch later, but it’s clear that the primary message is that the more people download the app the better. 

The app actively encourages users – and makes it easy – to share it with friends. The number of people who do that might be one of the factors that determines the effectiveness. 

We can expect to find out soon if health officials deem it effective – the HSE last month said that the app will be wound down within 90 days if it’s deemed to not be useful. 

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