What’s New in Civic Tech: States Build COVID-19 Tracking Apps

Plus, Detroit gets a giant digital inclusion boost from a $23 million cross-sector effort, and the FBI is warning of online scams amid the crisis.

by / April 23, 2020

As discussion about when and how to essentially re-open society in America continues, states have started to build apps to track the spread of COVID-19. Utah, North Dakota and South Dakota are three such states.

Utah has contracted with Twenty, a mobile app developer, to launch the Healthy Together app. Currently in beta, the way the Healthy Together app works is that it both disseminates information about illness and also tracks the movements of those who use it. The second part is so that if an individual later gets sick, health-care workers can see where they’ve crossed paths with other users, potentially identifying the spread of the virus.

Users must elect whether to share data with the app and health-care workers, and the data that they do share is only visible to health-care workers, rather than users of the app or other agencies. As the information page for the app notes, users own their data on this app and they can elect to erase it at any time. Both location data as well as any symptom data that users share is automatically deleted after 30 days.

North Dakota, meanwhile, has created a similar app called Care19. To do so, North Dakota worked in partnership with ProudCrowd, which also created the state’s Bison Track app. The way that Care19 works is that users download it, and they get a random ID number so that the app can anonymously cache their location data throughout a given day. Users are at the same time encouraged to categorize where they’re going into groups like work, school or groceries. The app only stores that location data for 10 minutes. 

If an app user later tests positive for COVID-19, they can then voluntarily share their data with North Dakota’s Department of Health in order to do the contact tracing that public health experts say is key to stopping the spread of the virus. 

In addition, South Dakota has also adapted use of the Care19 app.

This kind of tracking app construction has become a major area of focus during the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, with prominent entities from the private sector and academia, such as Apple, Google, and MIT, trying to build the best solution. Earlier this week, a researcher at MIT who is working on one such product told Government Technology that his team is in discussion with 15 cities in the U.S. as well as 20 international governments. 

Experts involved with the work have also told Government Technology that successfully accomplishing contact tracing is likely to be a team effort, one that combines private-sector tech expertise with government’s ability to legitimize and disseminate emergency response solutions to its constituents. 

Detroit Nets $23 Million Digital Inclusion Investment

Detroit has announced a new $23 million digital inclusion investment — aimed primarily at helping more students access technology and the Internet — with the donation coming from a coalition of the city’s leading businesses and philanthropic groups.

Detroit announced the massive digital equity windfall Thursday, with the donation coming as part of a new program called Connected Futures. The end goal of this work and this donation is to get a tablet with high-speed Internet connectivity — as well as technical support — for every public school student in the city by the summer. Of the money, $17 million is slated to go toward tablets with educational programs already installed, while $6 million will go toward free access to the Internet.

In a press release, city officials described today’s donation as “the first step in addressing digital inequity within the City of Detroit.” Getting the city’s students connected became an urgent priority after COVID-19 forced schools to close and children to stay home. Like other school districts across the country, Detroit looked to transition to digital learning. A problem for the city, however, was that its school district estimated that as much as 90 percent of students don’t have access to a device or the Internet at home.

This new program will get students devices, along with six months of Internet connectivity, fully paid for, before the program looks to transition to low-cost, hard-wired connections for students on a long-term basis. The companies and groups that worked together to make all this possible include DTE Energy, Skillman Foundation, Quicken Loans, the Detroit Public Schools Community District and the city. Roughly 51,000 students will be affected. 

Like most digital equity programs for students, this one stands to benefit the community beyond the youth as well. Having Internet at home with devices and the support to use them will enable parents to potentially apply for jobs online, take advantage of digital public services, and access much of the rest of our increasingly digital society. 

What makes this effort especially noteworthy is the timeline in which it was completed — a timeline that extends back roughly three weeks — with leadership at the involved organizations moving quickly after determining the importance of getting students connected. Work had long been underway in Detroit — as well as in the rest of the country — to bridge the digital divide for students and adults by getting access to the Internet in public spaces such as libraries or schools. The crisis, however, made tangible reasons why connectivity is so crucial at home.

In fact, in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, digital equity advocates and government officials that work in the broadband and digital inclusion space said a reinvigorated interest in supporting their work had taken hold across sectors. What happened today in Detroit is the first major effort to grow from that interest, and city officials there are hopeful that it will be a lasting turning point in digital inclusion for the community. Indeed, plans are already underway by the same group to potentially execute a similar program on behalf of the city’s 36,000 charter school students as well. 

The organizations and agencies that came together to make all this happen have also created a committee to oversee the work in the long term, noting in the announcement that it will continue to track key data points and address any problem areas that arise for the new program.

“When we look back to this time in 10 years, we will see that this moment changed the trajectory of education in our city,” said Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan in a press release. “We have risen to the challenge of this pandemic and found a way to forge something positive for our children. This will be a defining moment of pride in Detroit for many, many years.”

FBI Warns of Online Scams Amid Crisis

The FBI is warning of online scams related to the COVID-19 crisis.

In a tweet, the FBI noted that “scammers are using COVID-19 to steal money.” Anyone looking to donate money to causes related to the pandemic is encouraged to “do your homework” on related charity and crowdfunding sites, and, if possible, only donate to known and trusted charities that aren’t using any intermediaries. The FBI also noted that donations via cash, gift card purchase or wire transfer are all discouraged.

If individuals believe they have been scammed, they can report it via filing a report at http://ic3.gov.

Zack Quaintance Assistant News Editor

Zack Quaintance is the assistant news editor for Government Technology. His background includes writing for daily newspapers across the country and developing content for a software company in Austin, Texas. He is now based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached via email.

Platforms & Programs