Technology will play a huge role in the post-Covid-19 world, especially if we are to return to normality as quickly as some hope. Contact tracing and social distancing apps are already rushing to market, with many being touted as the most comprehensive solution to keep people safe, and many failing to live up to the hype after hasty rollout.
But at the same time as public entities scramble to try and put something forward, private companies are developing smaller-scale solutions that may overcome many of the inherent problems associated with public contact tracing initiatives.
Could transforming the workplace into a digital hub of monitoring and tracing fill in the gaps of public contact tracing apps?
The privacy problem
Developing a lifesaving app quickly, effectively and securely is just as difficult as it sounds — when you factor in a public health pandemic and need to immediately roll out at scale, it starts to get very complicated indeed. The problem with public contact tracing initiatives are numerous: the scale of the user base is too large and the data too sensitive, there can be little collaboration between parties, and even with a common foundation to work from (such as Apple and Google’s open API system) the people in charge of the actual operation of the app are not equipped to handle the task. “As these digital contact tracing apps launch, there’s a lot of fragmentation — many have significant limitations like always having the app in the foreground, and that’s not realistic in day-to-day use,” says Jason Cottrell, CEO of software studio Myplanet. “Further than that, some [public contact tracing apps] are violating certain principles about data privacy, mixing health and personal data in ways they shouldn’t be, and this is very concerning,” Cottrell continues.
While Cottrell argues that “Apple and Google’s program solves a lot of things, it’s set up where it’s very protective of personal info,” and that on the public side their system is “the only one that we believe will reach that crucial 60% threshold,” there remain significant limitations. “What [Apple and Google] are not doing is building the end apps for public health authorities (PHAs)… Many public health authorities do not have the ability to create [vital front-end components such as diagnosis verification], so there are both delays in launching these solutions as well as gaps in functionality,” says Cottrell. Google and Apple are admirably respecting people’s privacy while developing a widespread and effective contact tracing initiative, but the inherent limitations with public contact tracing make any efforts difficult to align with real-world conditions — such as a need to combine data that is private and sensitive.
It takes a village (not a nation)
The serious and compounding issues surrounding large scale public contact tracing initiatives are far less intimidating in a private setting, where programs to digitize aspects of the workplace (in this case, proximity and contact alerting) can be far more iterative and fit for purpose. In a private company, smaller groups can be effectively monitored, employees can opt-in to their data being used, and people with the expertise to develop, launch, support and patch such an intrinsic app are the ones who develop it start to finish. There are a number of advantages within a more predictable and manageable private environment that are simply not possible in public contact tracing initiatives, as Cottrell explains: “firstly it lets the company check faster and monitor spread, but in a private environment you can also supplement that data with sensor data, wearable data, third party data sources in a way that you shouldn’t in a public health use case.”
Combining multiple data sources and gaining comprehensive insight across an entire company helps to create a more effective contact tracing program, and to reinforce social distancing practices as part of a digitized working environment as well as in wider society.
Newlab, a Brooklyn-based community of over 800 entrepreneurs and inventors applying transformative technology to address global issues, have collaborated with founding member StrongArm Technologies to develop a return-to-work program, using StrongArm’s wearable FUSE sensors, environmental and physiological data and proximity alerts to maintain social distancing. Newlab CEO Shaun Stewart outlines their system: “Participants wear a sensor that is designed to inform them of risks immediately with haptic feedback, i.e., by flashing, vibrating and escalating to auditory alerts, if people walk within six feet of one another. If a Newlab member tests positive for Covid-19, we can see who they were in contact with by looking at sensor data, and isolate them while also ensuring additional cleaning of any areas they visited.”
By covering all possible angles within the workplace, good practice and safe distancing can be implemented for the eight or so hours that somebody is at work, and that constant reinforcement can carry over into public life as well even though “sensors are never used outside of Newlab and no data is collected outside of the Newlab facilities,” says Stewart. By implementing and maintaining these behaviors and systems for personal and communal safety, the wearable-based system saw an 82% decrease in light alerts (triggered by close proximity) between day one and day twenty.
Attacking from all angles
Contact tracing has very suddenly appeared as an elegant solution to allow people back to work, but public health authorities are simply not equipped to launch and support a nationwide program that the world’s biggest tech companies are struggling to fully address. Private initiatives can bridge the gap, and help to implement and reinforce good behaviors to stop the spread of coronavirus within the workplace and allow some return to normality.
Originally published at https://www.forbes.com.