How Municipalities Across the United States Are Approaching Contact Tracing

Developers, companies, and governments are working collaboratively and individually to bring out their best efforts at contact tracking and tracing. The mechanism for tracing varies from country to country, and even region to region. This article takes a closer look at tracing tools and apps used in the United States.

The most powerful API currently on offer is a collaborative effort from Apple and Google. The Apple Exposure Notification APITrack this API and Android Exposure Notification APITrack this API was launched as a qualified open-access tool, with the proviso that any developers must pass a rigorous screening process to qualify for use. Coronavirus/Covid-19 apps not using the Apple-Google API must pass an equally rigorous screening process to make it onto the app store for either platform, as well as providing proof that the app is a release from an official health organization or government.

Alternative tracing tools in use include GPS, Bluetooth, and voluntary logging of data (such as location, symptoms, and test results). As of today, the majority of states are opting for these alternatives, with the idea that centralized data from these tools is a more secure option than the globally available Apple/Google API.

The information provided in this article is current as of July 2020. However, tracker apps are a moving target: this means that apps are evolving daily, sometimes rolling back, and sometimes never making it out of beta. Meanwhile, before most states have so much as agreed upon how to begin work on an app, the U.S. Senate is working on a bipartisan bill called the Exposure Notification Privacy Act. We’ll check back in with updates to this information whenever possible.

While no states have active apps using the Apple/Google API, two states have apps in production where developers have announced publicly their plan to use the API: Washington and North Dakota.

The app in development for the state of Washington is a collaboration between academics, doctors, and private sector developers, where “doctors and researchers at the University of Washington with Microsoft volunteers have built a tool to alert you about highly relevant public health announcements, potential exposure to COVID-19.” The development team is also working in collaboration with the Apple/Google effort. This tool is in transition to full open-source availability.

The other app in development planned for use with the Apple/Google Exposure Notification System API is in development for North Dakota. The state of North Dakota already has a tracking app called Care19, launched in April of this year. Care19 was developed in collaboration with the North Dakota Department of Health, and Tim Brookins, a Principal Engineer at Microsoft, by repurposing his NDSU sports fan tracking site “ProwdCrowd.”  The Care19 app has since been licensed for use in South Dakota and another undisclosed state.

With the first Care19 app live, North Dakota has the bandwidth to explore the use of a second app built with the Apple/Google API. While the second, decentralized app is still in development, the first app is doing a bit of housekeeping, per the Washington Post. “Care19’s maker, Tim Brookins of ProudCrowd, told me the app uses a Foursquare service called Pilgrim SDK to convert the location data it collects as latitude and longitude into the names of recognizable places. “The Care19 application user interface clearly calls out the usage of Foursquare on our ‘Nearby Places’ screen, per the terms of our Foursquare agreement,” Brookins wrote in an email. “We will be working with our state partners to be more explicit in our privacy policy.” Brookins also said they would clarify privacy policy language about how it shares data to conduct diagnostics.

States with pending launches are slowly taking public stances about their plans for contact tracing apps. Alabama and South Carolina have confirmed that they have agreements in place to use the Apple/Google framework.

Most states currently not participating in the use of the Apple/Google framework are making a broad effort to keep an open dialogue about the possible future use. In a letter from two Maryland attorneys general to the CEOs of Apple and Google, “while digital contact tracing and exposure notification tools are valuable in understanding the spread of COVID-19 and assisting public health authorities, these same technologies pose a risk to consumers’ privacy.” The letter was co-signed by attorneys general from 38 other U.S. states and provinces.

There is a state-by-state effort underway to develop individual contact tracing apps. Virginia has leveraged a framework originally designed to track opioid use and abuse to include an expansion to contact tracing. Rhode Island has launched a GPS-based tracker called CRUSH Covid RI. Utah has launched Healthy Together, which already has 45,000 users (2% of the states total population).

Most recently underway is the extremely ambitious project from the Association of Public Health Laboratories, where they plan to build a national COVID-19 exposure notification server, which will run securely on Apple and Google’s API and be hosted by Microsoft. Another sprawling plan comes from the Linux Foundation Public Health (LFPH), where development is underway to build globally available open-source tech to provide access to testing, tracing, and isolation activities, all with open source technology. LFPH has also debuted two hosted exposure notification projects dubbed COVID Shield and COVID Green.

Progress with contact tracing apps is ongoing, with new apps launching, rolling back, and entering development regularly. We encourage our readers to engage in the comments section below with any new or updated information.

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Author: <a href="">Katherine-Harrison-Adcock</a>

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