Coronavirus: Singapore develops smartphone app for efficient contact tracing

PHOTO: YouTube screengrab

A contact-tracing smartphone app has been launched to allow the local authorities to quickly track people who have been exposed to confirmed coronavirus cases.

Dubbed TraceTogether, the app is able to identify people who have been in close proximity - within 2m for at least 30 minutes - to coronavirus patients using wireless Bluetooth technology, said its developers, the Government Technology Agency (GovTech) and the Ministry of Health (MOH), on Friday (March 20).

"This is especially useful in cases where the infected persons do not know everyone whom they had been in close proximity with for an extended duration," said its developers.

While the use of the app is not compulsory, those who use it have to turn on the Bluetooth settings in their phones for tracing to be done. They also need to enable push notifications and location permissions in the app, which is available on the Apple App Store or the Google Play store.

Should one of these users be infected, MOH will be able to quickly find out which other users they have been in close contact with, allowing for easier identification of potential cases and helping to curb the spread of the coronavirus here.

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On its website, TraceTogether's developers said the app is meant to complement current contact-tracing methods and allow for the identification of people who were in close proximity with an infected person more efficiently. There is currently no target for the number of users for the app.

In a release on Friday, the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDGO) said users have to give explicit consent to participate in TraceTogether, and for their mobile number and data to be used for contact tracing.

"When requested by MOH, users can send their TraceTogether logs to facilitate the contact tracing process. Up to that point, the authorities, including MOH and GovTech, have no knowledge of the user's TraceTogether data," said SNDGO.

Official contact tracers will provide a code that users can match with a corresponding verification code on their app. Once authenticated, users will be given a PIN that allows submission of logs when entered.

Official contact tracers will also not ask for any personal financial details or request for the transfer of money over the phone.

When contacted by contact tracers, that is the point that users will be asked to share their data logs. If they refuse, they may be prosecuted under the Infectious Diseases Act.

On its website, TraceTogether developers said that keeping the app running all the time will not drain a phone's battery significantly.

The only data that is collected by the Government through this app is the user's mobile number, which is kept so that MOH can contact users quickly if they were in close proximity with an infected case.

The app also does not collect or use users' location data, but only records who they might have been close to.

Similar apps have been said to be successful in helping to turn the tide against the coronavirus in some countries.

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In highly-connected South Korea, for instance, people know quickly when a new coronavirus case is found in their neighbourhood through a government alert sent to their mobile phones. This alert includes details such as the new patient's age, gender and travel history.

The World Health Organisation and experts said that the country's extensive tracing, testing and isolation measures have helped to significantly reduce the virus's spread.

Over the past two weeks, the number of new cases being reported daily has dropped dramatically, from a peak of 909 cases announced on Feb 29 to 74 on March 16.

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.

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