Government considers contact tracing app for South Africa

Government is considering building a smartphone application using the COVID-19 exposure notification system developed by Google and Apple for Android and iOS devices, a spokesperson for the Department of Health has said.

South Africa does not currently have a mobile application that can make use of the exposure notification API developed by Apple and Google that uses Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology.

Instead, the National Department of Health in South Africa has focused on a system called COVIDConnect, which was developed in partnership with BCX and the Praekelt Foundation.

COVIDConnect works on WhatsApp, SMS, and USSD and is not a smartphone application in its own right.

The Department of Health said that one of the reasons it chose these technologies is to ensure it reached as many South Africans as possible, as well get the desired use out of the system at scale.

The aim with COVIDConnect is for government to have a tool to help it with pandemic management, contact tracing, and communication with patients and their close contacts.

Since it runs on platforms like WhatsApp, SMS, and USSD, COVIDConnect uses a chatbot for its user interface.

It provides patients with their coronavirus test results and prompts them with questions to help gauge how severe their symptoms are. It then advises patients to either self quarantine or seek medical attention depending on the severity of the case.

Patients can also upload the information of people they have been in close contact with in the days before they tested positive for the coronavirus.

These “declared contacts” are then sent an SMS and taken to a different part of the COVIDConnect system which also begins with a symptom questionnaire.

Patients and contacts are sent daily monitoring messages with the aim of helping healthcare workers keep track of the status of COVID-19 patients and people who may have been exposed to the virus.

Apple-Google COVID-19 exposure notification partnership

On 11 April 2020, Apple and Google announced that they had partnered to develop an application programming interface (API) for COVID-19 exposure notification.

Part of the specification of the technology is that no personally identifying information or location data is collected.

Rather than relying on GPS tracking or any other exchange of personal data, the exposure notification framework built into Android and iPhone devices uses Bluetooth low-energy signals to determine whether two people were in close proximity to each other.

According to Google, their system was heavily inspired by the Decentralized Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing protocol (DP-3T), which was developed by a team of European researchers.

DP-3T was one of many protocols developed by researchers to try and address the privacy concerns as they relate to automated contact tracing. Others include the Temporary Contact Numbers Protocol (TCN) and the Private Automated Contact Tracing (PACT) system from MIT.

Participating app needed

While the Apple-Google API has been rolled out to Android and iOS devices, the companies have stated that it does not work without a participating app installed.

Each country can only have one official participating exposure notification app, and the two tech giants have strict requirements regarding data privacy.

Several European governments and epidemiologists have asked Apple and Google to relax these privacy requirements.

They explained that apps built using the Apple-Google API are essentially useless to researchers and do not provide contact tracers with any useful data to help them do their jobs.

Since no personal information is gathered, the framework also does not give governments the information they need to follow up with people who may have been exposed to the virus or enforce their quarantine rules.

BCX has stated that COVIDConnect was built in a way that it can be extended with this kind of automated contact tracing technology.

It will be up to the Department of Health to decide whether it will use an app based on the model provided by Apple and Google, or whether it will take a different approach.

Now read: No, Google and Apple have not installed a COVID-19 tracing app on your phone

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Government considers contact tracing app for South Africa