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Singapore develops app to speed up contact tracing of COVID-19 patients

Stephen Padilla
02 Apr 2020
Mobile phones and the spread of infection

Singapore has created a smartphone application (app) to help the Ministry of Health (MOH) in tracing close contacts of patients with the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

Aptly called TraceTogether, the app was developed by Singapore’s Government Technology Agency and the MOH. It uses Bluetooth wireless technology to allow users to track individuals they came in close contact with, including timestamps, as long as the other persons are also using the app.

“If the need arises, this information can then be used to identify close contacts based on the proximity and duration of an encounter between the two users,” the government stated.

If a user happens to be infected with the virus, that patient can allow the MOH to access the data stored in the app to identify close contacts. [https://www.gov.sg/article/help-speed-up-contact-tracing-with-tracetogether]

The app can help identify individuals who have been within 2 m of the COVID-19 patient for at least 30 minutes, reported The Straits Times. [https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/coronavirus-spore-government-to-make-its-contact-tracing-app-freely-available-to]

TraceTogether does not seek to replace the contact tracing process, but it can be a “useful addition” when infected individuals cannot recall those they came in close contact with for an extended duration, according to the government.

“Share it with your friends and family,” the government urged. “The app works when there are other users around who have it installed too, so the more people have it, the more comprehensive the [information] can be.”

Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan said that the app, which is available for both Android and iOS users, has been installed by more than 620,000 persons to date.

To use TraceTogether, users must enter their mobile number, enable push notifications, keep the Bluetooth turned on, and leave the app continuously running with full permissions. The app will stop running when the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition levels return to Green. Users will then get an update on how to delete the data stored in the app.

The app, however, does not track the user’s location or phone contacts and only stores data for 21 days. These data will not be accessed unless the user has been identified as a close contact. There are also measures set to protect the user’s mobile number, which is paired with a random ID. This ID is the one that is exchanged between phones, not the actual number.

“If you are identified as a close contact of a confirmed case through the app, MOH will contact you directly,” the government said. “Similarly, if MOH needs to conduct contact tracing with you, they will seek your permission to access the data on your app.”

Balakrishnan, who is also foreign minister, added that TraceTogether will be open-sourced, which means that the app’s source code will be made available for free and may be redistributed and modified.

“We believe that making our code available to the world will enhance trust and collaboration in dealing with a global threat that does not respect boundaries, political systems or economies," said Balakrishnan in the report by The Straits Times.

COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, China, in December 2019 and has infected more than 782,000 individuals across the world, with close to 38,000 deaths, as of this writing.

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