Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Pulse Check on the Apple-Google COVID-19 Contact Tracing Tool

Before we get too far into this blog post, my promise to you is I will refrain from using the terms “unprecedented times’ or ‘new normal’. If I get one more email with someone telling me we are in ‘unprecedented times’ I think I might lose it.

Obviously, we’re in crazy times. We went months without seeing another person (besides the people we were quarantining with). Murder hornets are now apparently a thing we have to live with. And we now have a tool on our iPhones that tracks our potential contact with a deadly virus. Speaking of the Apple-Google COVID-19 contact tracing tool, let’s check back in with how that’s going.

I Don’t Know What You’re Talking About…

Didn’t know this was a thing? Neither did any of my friends and family. Several months ago (AKA a lifetime), I wrote about the beginning stages of a new feature on our iPhones that Apple and Google created together. Both tech giants brought in what they do best – Google utilized its Google Maps to determine how traffic has changed at places of retail, transportation, groceries, etc. Apple also brought in its mapping services to learn more about mobility trends by counting the number of requests for directions.

But that was just the first phase. They had planned on updating the project once iOS 14 was released. So now that the new operating system has been out for a few weeks now (and the pictures of people’s home screens have stopped popping up on Twitter), let’s see how much progress has been made since May’s announcement.

Current State

You may have noticed in the latest iOS 14 update that your phone can send you COVID-19 exposure notifications (Useful or overwhelming? I’m still deciding). Users don’t need an app to be enrolled in this notification system; when someone reports they have tested positive for the virus, an alert will go out to individuals that have been around them.

In September, only Virginia had implemented an app utilizing this technology. As we enter the latter half of 2020 (thank God), more states have created mobile apps that take advantage of this technology – but it does not come without its own set of issues.

Coming Together

Pro tip: if you do not follow the state of New Jersey on Twitter, I highly recommend you do so. In a surprising twist of events, the Garden State has one of the most compelling Twitter accounts I’ve seen due to their feud with New York’s Twitter (this is a sentence I’d never thought I’d write). But these states have called a truce (outside of social media), along with Delaware and Pennsylvania, to share a COVID-19 tracing database.

There is not a national COVID-19 tracing app currently, which is why these states have chosen to share a common database in regards to a common database. This means if a person from New Jersey were to cross state lines into New York, a notification would still appear if you had come into contact with an infected individual if you had the state’s app on your phone. Thanks to the open source codebase, COVID Green, states are able to modify the preexisting line of code and create a contact tracing app better suited for their needs.

The states on the east coast are not alone in their journey to create contact tracing apps; they’ve just had less hiccups. Other states are in the midst of building their own app for contact tracing, however, some have experienced privacy issues and are unable to work with each other.

Will all 50 states of a contact tracing app before the end of the year? Only time will tell. As more states and businesses take advantage of this technology, we may have a better understanding of how the virus is spreading.