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Contact Tracing Apps, Innovation Hot Spots Abound During Covid19

Technology

Isadora Teich wrote this article

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The Covid19 pandemic has had sweeping effects on the entire world in a matter of months, changing nearly everything in its wake.

So much is happening so quickly that scrolling through your Twitter feed or turning on the TV can often feel like a stressful marathon of Covid19 updates.

But, did you know that there is actually a lot of good news happening too?

And they are doing some truly fascinating work.

While it is important to grieve, rest, and take the pandemic at large seriously, I think it is also important to recognize and celebrate the incredible work being done to make our lives healthier and better in such uncertain times.

So, let’s take a look!

Contact Tracing Apps

Essentially, contact tracing apps notify users when someone they’ve been in close contact with is diagnosed with Covid19.

This allows people at high-risk of potentially spreading the virus to quarantine; instead of doing so retroactively once symptoms begin to surface.

However, contact tracing apps do raise some ethical questions, particularly around data privacy.

In order to be effective at such a vast scale, everyone has to log on and be tracked by contract tracing apps. If enough users opt out, they are basically rendered useless. But if everyone uses them, just who manages and protects all of that personal information? What information will the app store have access to, and who else can access it? Will every individual out there consent to being tracked 24-7?

In response, numerous countries across Asia, Europe, and the Americas have launched their own contract tracing apps, and many more are in the process of building out this software.

However, this in and of itself is a problem.

Covid19 is a virus. Unlike us, it does not recognize international borders. So, having dozens of tracing apps that don’t speak to each other with different requirements and limitations will ultimately prove ineffective.

For a contact tracing app to be truly effective in its purpose, everyone needs to use the same app.

Here’s one example for context: A contact tracing app that’s inaccessible to China would be missing about 18% of the world’s total population by default.  Modeling done at Oxford University suggests that 80% of us need to install a contact tracing app in order to stop the pandemic.

That means, if China alone is kept out of the loop, we still might be flirting with potential global disaster.

The Solution

Ultimately, in order for this kind of app to function globally, it needs to be truly universal. It needs to work in all countries and across all devices.

Luckily for us, digital technology has the power to transcend geographical and political lines, too.

Organizations worldwide will have to work together to build out a solution directly into devices and get individuals to use them.

Google and Apple are getting started. They recently joined forces to create an anonymous, decentralized global contact tracing technology. This app will be built into every Android and iOS smartphone moving forward.

When it comes to some questions of ethics and personal privacy, they are also working to address those.

The architecture of this technology neither stores nor discloses personal or medical information.

This means that the information cannot be stolen, leveraged, or abused at the expense of users. The companies have also pledged to deactivate the apps once the outbreaks have been contained.

Contact Tracing In Australia

While ultimately, there is a tremendous need for a global solution, Australia has made incredible progress with its own contact tracing app, COVIDSafe.

This app is voluntary to download and is based on Singapore’s TraceTogether Software.

In the first few days after it launched in April, more than a million people had already downloaded it. COVIDSafe uses Bluetooth and stored contact data. The Australian government says the app doesn’t collect location data, users must consent to their data being shared, and only medical professionals can legally access this data.

At its current count, Australia is still well under ten thousand diagnosed cases of Covid19, and as of May 25th 2020, the number of active coronavirus cases fell under 500 for the first time since March as their recoveries begin to outpace the infection.

Geographical assistance aside (they are on an island, after all), Australia’s use of their contract tracing app is indeed working to help slow the spread of Covid19.

Microsoft’s Plasma Bot

On top of using tech to help trace and stop the pandemic from spreading, many efforts are also being made to help those who are already sick.

Microsoft is launching a self-screening tool that allows users to check whether they qualify for donating their plasma. This will help with the creation of a treatment or vaccine for Covid19.

The tool is part of Microsoft’s work with a group called the CoVig-19 Plasma Alliance.

Once someone catches Covid19, their body produces antibodies to fight it. When they recover, they have the antibodies in their blood. Early information suggests their plasma could potentially be useful in treating those infected with Covid19.

However, rather than giving direct plasma-infusions from convalescent Covid19 patients to the newly sick, The Plasma Alliance wants to create a plasma-based therapy called polyclonal hyperimmune globulin, which requires multiple donations of plasma.

Microsoft’s Plasma Bot will screen users by asking them a number of questions, and if they qualify it will direct them to where they can volunteer to donate.

The Rise of Telehealth Amid Covid19

It goes without saying that for many, Telehealth went from barely-used buzzword to overnight necessity.

For years, there’s been the likes of BetterHelp and Talk Space out there of course  to seemingly augment our needs, but the reality is, the existing model of mental health has long awaited its disruption and it’s getting it now, thanks to Covid19.

Widespread access to affordable mental health care and service is crucial, and apps and software can help us to achieve that.

MyCocun is launching soon, and is here to offer affordable talk therapy to users via convenient, easy-to-use web app. You can read up on MyCocun’s mission of helping teens and young adults live their best lives through early treatment of depression and anxiety over on Instagram.

Now, more than ever, users under stay-at-home orders need access to virtual mental health care, and MyCocun is one organization rising up to meet the groundswell of need.

Upgrading Existing Tech For The Pandemic

On top of working on the creation of new tech tools, many companies around the world are finding ways of tweaking existing technologies and tools to work against the pandemic.

A Health Mirror

The Miaza Mirror is a smart mirror that detects the presence of a person as soon as they wave at it.

Then, the mirror walks them through the hand-washing process recommended by the WHO in a 35-second video. As handwashing is one of the main ways to prevent the spread of Covid19, this is incredibly important.

The mirror was developed by social innovation engineer Kanav Kahol. He is the co-founder of the New Delhi-based firm Pink Tech Design and also an adjunct professor of biomedical informatics at Arizona State University. He wants them to be in every public restroom to direct people to practice vital and lifesaving sanitation practices.

The Miaza Mirror was initially launched in 2018 as a general smart mirror, however, Kahol started to retool it due to the pandemic. He calls it a “health mirror” and imagines it could help users with even more. This includes health necessities like self-breast exams and helping to maintain medication schedules via daily reminders.  Kahol wants them to be in public restrooms around the world.

Using Drones To Predict Pandemic Hotspots

Javaan Chahl, a professor of sensor systems at the University of South Australia, is currently working with the Canada-based drone tech firm Draganfly on a unique project to combat the pandemic. They are creating a drone-based system to help local authorities globally identify or predict Covid19 hotspots.

Back in 2014, this drone system was initially developed with the intention of measuring vital signs in premature infants in a less invasive way. However, they also found it to be useful in the terms of disaster relief.

In the case of the pandemic, they are retooling these drones to be able to detect body temperature and signs of respiratory illness. They also have plans to integrate this computer vision systems into cameras so it can be used in hospitals as they treat Covid19 patients.

Final Thoughts

Undoubtedly, the pandemic has created a lot of grief, uncertainty, and difficulty.

While it is important to be realistic and empathetic about the situation, reasons to be hopeful still abound.

Many brilliant innovators around the world are doing incredibly important work to fight the pandemic, and the shift to ‘tech for good’ in terms of focus will be beneficial to all.

Which of these projects do you find the most interesting? Talk to me.

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