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MIT, Apple, Google Build Apps to Trace COVID-19 Contact

Along with Apple, Google and other entities around the world, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is developing mobile software and an online tool for governments to trace and publicize COVID-19 cases.

It’s been 33 days since California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the first statewide stay-at-home order, and 42 others soon followed suit. What it will take to reopen their economies is a question on everyone’s mind, and a consensus is forming: From the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the Harvard University Center for Ethics to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, experts don’t believe governments and businesses can safely reopen without wide-scale testing and tracing. To that end, some researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and separately at companies such as Apple and Google, are designing mobile apps to help fill that key role.

For the past few weeks, MIT has been promoting its new Safe Paths platform, consisting of a mobile application called Private Kit and a Web application, Safe Places. Described by MIT’s white paper as a free, open source tool for agencies and individuals to trace positive cases of COVID-19, Safe Paths uses GPS and Bluetooth to log people’s locations in a secure diary, so if they wind up testing positive for the coronavirus, they can provide health officials with a record of where they’ve been. Health officials can then use the Safe Places Web app to redact personally identifiable information from the location trail and release the information to the public, so other people can look up — or even get automatic notifications — if they recently crossed paths with any carriers.

Associate professor Ramesh Raskar, the lead on the project, told Government Technology on Monday that his team is in discussions to implement the app in 15 municipalities in the U.S. and more than 20 governments internationally.

“Two things (interested governments) have to do: One is, they should contact us,” he said. “And two, through Ernst & Young … we provide a training program for local health officials. So they can download our software, and EY can provide training — on how to do interviews, how they record the data, how to release the data and everything. And then separately, the local officials need to promote the use of the apps amongst their citizens. The app, of course, is free, nonprofit, open source.”

Being open source and interoperable with other similar apps is crucial, Raskar said, if the goal is to build the base of knowledge — about the locations and prevalence of COVID-19 cases in every community — that will be necessary to reopen the economy. Absent an organized federal test-and-trace program, state and local governments will need to acquire that information themselves, hence projects like Safe Paths.

In a recent joint announcement, Apple and Google said they’re working on a similar software kit, with plans to release application programming interfaces (APIs) in May that will allow interoperability between Android and iOS devices using apps from public health authorities. Details have yet to be announced, but in the coming months, both companies will release a broader Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform: “a more robust solution than an API (that) would allow more individuals to participate, if they choose to opt in, as well as enable interaction with a broader ecosystem of apps and government health authorities,” according to the announcement.

Similar contact tracing mobile apps are underway around the world: In Europe, Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing is developing a scalable, interoperable software system for mobile-based contact tracing; in Singapore, the government used a tool called TraceTogether; in Hong Kong, it was called StayHomeSafe.

In short, contact tracing in the United States and around the world will be a team effort. MIT said it’s working in various capacities with people from Harvard, Stanford, State University of New York at Buffalo, Mayo Clinic, Massachusetts General Hospital, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies; as well as with experts from governments and institutions in Canada, Germany, India, Italy, the United Kingdom and Vietnam.

Above all, Raskar was adamant that contact tracing will still require interviews and organized work from public agencies, in addition to data yielded by mobile apps and software platforms.

“(Local governments) can show the maps on the 7 o’clock news, or publish it in the newspaper the next morning, saying ‘This is Starbucks at 2 p.m. at this grocery store. If you came in contact with this (place or person), then we want you to call us if you have symptoms or if you’re an at-risk population.’ So even those citizens who don’t have a smartphone … can see this map and say ‘Hey, I was at Starbucks at 2 p.m. on Tuesday … and I wasn’t careful, so I should probably call public health,’” he said. “But we think that manual contact tracing by public officials is a very important piece of the puzzle. We don’t think this problem can be solved purely by a piece of software.”

Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.