A group of researchers at the University of Cape Town have become the latest to join a growing list of developers of smartphone apps designed to help fight the coronavirus.

CoviID is designed to help officials trace the physical contacts a person had once they test positive for the virus.

It also incentivises people to practise good hygiene, as well as allowing for a verified healthcare professional to attest to the user’s status once they have been tested. 

The developers believe that verifiable negative tests would allow for freedom of movement if those in good health wish to travel.

Should a user test positive, however, CoviID will be able to track and trace the movements of that user using Bluetooth and geolocation, covering the two weeks prior to testing positive for the virus and assisting monitoring efforts.

Associate Professor Co-Pierre Georg, convenor of UCT’s Master’s in Financial Technology, worked remotely with a group of his students to design the app, the first version of which is due for release in the next three weeks.

Georg argues that lockdown is effective, but it can work “only for a short period of time”.

The app designers used insights from behavioural economics to create a design that would influenceusers to practise good hygiene and health habits, says co-designer Kungela Mzuku, a former student who is now an innovation developer at Standard Bank.

The designers say there is potential to incentivise safety during outbreaks, for example by rewarding physical distancing and self-isolation through partnerships with other businesses. So, for instance, if the app picks up that the user has remained at home for a few days, they could be eligible for a discount at a partner supermarket. This is a similar concept to, say, Discovery’s Vitality programme.

“This will help the government to incentivise people to do the right thing without having to go into full lockdown every time there is an outbreak, which is very costly,” says Georg.

Georg believes it’s important to use tools beyond lockdown, in case of future mutations. He argues that lockdowns are not a sustainable method of controlling the outbreak.

What about privacy?

However, there is a nagging question: privacy. What are the implications of, firstly, having to disclose one’s status, and secondly, potentially having one’s status stored on your phone, leaving sensitive medical information vulnerable to cyber-criminals?

“Designing this kind of app is not rocket science, and we’re not the first or only ones to do it. The thing that makes us different, however, is the fact that we’ve designed this from a privacy-first perspective,” says Georg.

According to Georg, the CoviID app makes use of blockchain technology, which is more secure. It will collect a user’s personal location and infection status and store it on their phone using a technology called self-sovereign identity – in other words, it is not stored on a centralised government or private-sector database.

Other coronavirus-fighting apps worldwide have drawn controversy. Examples include a track-and-trace application in the works from a team at Oxford University, which records a user’s contact with other users, as reported by LiveScience.

A UK National Health Service app designed to track the movements of those infected with the virus has drawn privacy concerns, while other apps have steered clear of tracking and tracing and have instead designed symptom-checking apps to help users decide when to seek medical assistance, among other things.

* Compiled by Marelise van der Merwe

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