24 June 2020 / By SGN
As COVID-19 continues to breach geographical boundaries, countries around the world started putting in place enhanced social distancing rules. Some countries — like Singapore, India, and China — enacted shelter-in-place policies to reduce social contact between strangers.
While physical geographical borders were guarded more stringently, boundaries of a different kind — digital and online — are being lowered. This has enabled researchers, from all over the world, to reach an unprecedented level of global collaboration.
So many experts, researchers have observed, are now focused a singular goal of finding a vaccine or a cure for COVID-19 and halting all other research. Their efforts are empowered by technological advancements which have enabled a rapid pace of information-sharing.
In fact, in the face of COVID-19, many countries are finding technologies — particularly those of the disruptive kind — like Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Big Data to be powerful allies and tools to have in one’s arsenal.
In Singapore and several other countries, their efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus in communities came in the form of a tracing app.
TraceTogether, #StaySafe Together
In late March, when the number of confirmed cases of infection rose to almost 500, Singapore’s Government Technology Agency (GovTech) released the TraceTogether smartphone app aimed at enhancing ongoing contact tracing efforts.
Since launch, the team has received many requests to replicate TraceTogether internationally. Hence, the team has also released an open-sourced code, called OpenTrace, which can be adapted for deployment overseas. (Photo credit: GovTech)
Existing tracing efforts were painstaking and labour-intensive, and open to possible lapses in memory, turning accurate contact tracing into an even more daunting endeavour.
Other countries like South Korea have resorted to more traditional means such as using records such as credit card transactions, smartphone location data and CCTV video as well as interviews to map locations of possible infected individuals. It is a potentially more labour-intensive process.
Singapore’s TraceTogether App, on the other hand, was developed by GovTech in collaboration with the Ministry of Health (MOH). It works by exchanging short-distance Bluetooth signals between phones to detect other users of the app who are nearby — about two metres apart for a period lasting 30 minutes — to the user.
But why Bluetooth signals and not GPS?
“While GPS signals work well in wide-open spaces, it fares poorly when it comes to indoor and highly urbanised settings,” notes Jason Bay, Senior Director of Government Digital Services at GovTech, who was quoted in this GovTech article. Aside from the technical challenge, Jason also shares that with location data, concerns over privacy and data security will become a key barrier to adoption.
Jason reassures users that by harnessing Bluetooth signals, the TraceTogether app exchanges contain only four pieces of information. These are the timestamp; the strength of the Bluetooth signal; the phone’s model; and a temporary identifier or nickname which is given to the user when they sign up.
The signal strength, in particular, is used to figure out the distance between two app users. With an effective maximum range of about 10 metres, the signal strength can be translated into the actual distance.
Case closed? Not quite.
Challenge Accepted, Achievements Unlocked
Translating the signal strength into actual distance proved to be more challenging than the team initially expected. Jason shares, “We found out that the Bluetooth signal strength difference between two phones can be 1,000 per cent or even more—up to 10,000 per cent. One of the hardest parts of this project was characterising and calibrating across different models of phones.”
With the help of partners from the Infocomm Media Development Authority, Nanyang Polytechnic and the Institute for Infocomm Research, the team ended up testing dozens of different phone models. The team found themselves in uncharted territory, as the GovTech engineers worked primarily on software rather than hardware.
But the collaborative spirit allowed the team to build a robust and accurate app. That said, the app is facing perhaps one of its biggest challenges yet: Adoption rates have remained low at about 30 per cent — below the 75 per cent required for it to be effective.
With the Circuit Breaker measures progressively eased in the coming weeks, the TraceTogether App is poised to be a solution that could potentially reduce the severity of a second wave of infections. The latest version of the app supports quicker identification if someone needs to be contacted by MOH and is also made available in various languages, amongst other enhancements.
That said, GovTech has also intentionally made the operations of the TraceTogether App transparent to the developer community— by releasing it as an open-sourced code, called OpenTrace.
Keeping the app open-sourced could help other organisations and countries build similar Bluetooth-based contact tracing solutions suited to their local contexts. And with other countries adopting this model, it will help facilitate greater interoperability across countries, allowing us to combat COVID-19 globally.
A glimpse of how a Smart Nation combats a pandemic
Outside of the TraceTogether App, GovTech has utilised the existing smart nation digital infrastructure and engineering capabilities in Singapore to develop a suite of other digital tools to fight COVID-19.
To enable effective, accurate and timely dissemination of information, the existing Ask Jamie virtual chatbots have been enhanced to address queries related to COVID-19. Machine Learning technologies have also been used to improve the accuracy of replies.
Another tool, the GoBusiness portal was established to support the application, approval and management process for businesses applying for worker permits.
Most recently, GovTech also played a vital role in establishing the SafeEntry tool. It is a national digital check-in system that logs the name, NRIC and mobile number of individuals visiting hotspots and venues providing essential services. This information will be used for contact tracing in the event of an outbreak.
Just scan and check in or out — thanks to technology, contact tracing need not be a hassle. (Photo Credit: GovTech)
Collectively, these solutions show how technology can be a force for good in trying times, illuminating the quickest and safest path out of a pandemic while minimising or mitigating its possible negative impact.
This continued push towards AI and machine-learning adoption could play a decisive role in determining how we anticipate and effectively deal with the next health scare.
If technological solutions can, for instance, detect diseases early and enhance our understanding to prevent hysteria, it could potentially be a gamechanger.
COVID-19 requires a #SGUnited Solution
At its core, the COVID-19 disease is still one that is passed through social contact. This means the true solution to the problem lies in our individual efforts.
Together, each of us can have a critical impact on our safety and recovery as a community. Ending the scourge of COVID-19 is not grounded in an online or offline solution but a SG United one.