Developers race to release COVID app

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

A number of developer teams are racing to release a COVID-19 contact tracing app in Australia, with the team behind a highly successful NSW government digital project set to unveil a prototype next week.

The core team that developed the NSW government’s award-winning Public Transport Information and Priority System (PTIPS), has been developing ConTrace – an app to track and contain the spread of infectious diseases. The project was initiated by former NSW Health data quality manager Jonathan Armstrong, who is working closely with PTIPS creator Dr Ghassan Jarjees, former PTIPS development team lead Louis Berghold, and PTIPS senior developer Graham Webber.

PTIPS provides for real-time tracking of public transport locations and status, along with traffic light priority, timetable performance and real-time arrival information.  The project won the Best NSW Government Initiative and the Best Smart City Project in 2017.

Jonathan Armstrong
Jonathan Armstong: A tracking app from the team behind Transport NSW success

A number of the core team members behind PTIPS have been working on ConTrace since well before the outbreak of COVID-19 around the world, and are now racing to release a version of the app to allow for effective and privacy-protecting contact tracing of the coronavirus.

The development of ConTrace has been completed pro-bono by the team and alongside their full-time roles.

Mr Armstrong said ConTrace can act as a “black box flight recorder”, using a smartphone’s Bluetooth signal to log “proximity events” with other users. The app will then notify users who have had these proximity events with someone who has later tested positive for COVID-19, and provide clear directions on symptoms and the nearest testing facility.

“The moment that positive test is entered into the system all people in contact with them over the last three weeks can get an immediate alert – they will know straight away they were in contact with someone with a communicative disease, and they’ll know earlier so they’re not spending the next two weeks unknowingly spreading it to other people,” Mr Armstrong told InnovationAus.

ConTrace is similar to the successful TraceTogether app launched recently by the Singapore government. There have been growing calls for the Australian government to launch a similar contact tracing app locally, with this process currently being conducted manually and relying on the memory of those with COVID-19.

Mr Armstrong said his app will better protect privacy than the Singapore initiative or other apps being developed locally. ConTrace will be “totally anonymous and does not require the user to enter their mobile phone number”.

Users won’t have to enter any personal information to access the service. Instead, they will be allocated a randomly generated identification number, and all proximity events with other ID numbers will be deleted after 21 days.

Another contact tracing app is being built by separate Australian developers called ImpactApp, with plans to launch within days.

“We saw that [other apps] might require people’s mobile phone numbers and realised that’s a really big flaw, and it’s the same with the ImpactApp. We really see the fact there’s total protection of user privacy as a really significant factor that sets us aside from the others,” Mr Armstrong said.

Australian Information Commissioner Angelene Falk has said that privacy laws won’t stand in the way of efforts to combat COVID-19, such as a contact tracing app, but these responses need to be “reasonable and necessary”.

“The principal position that I’m coming from is to ensure that any information handling is necessary, reasonable and proportionate. Technology can play an important role in addressing public health issues, but it’s important we have safeguards in place and that any change to information handling arrangements are time-limited to address these immediate concerns,” Ms Falk told InnovationAus.

“We’re in exceptional circumstances but at the same time we do need to ensure that personal information is protected and handled in accordance with the law.”

The federal government is believed to be investigating the use of a contact tracing app in Australia and has fast-tracked a review of the Singapore version last week.

The developers of ConTrace have not yet been in discussions with the government. They are planning to launch a prototype by next week, and will then be looking for further funding or support to reach a beta release of the service as soon as possible.

Mr Armstrong said they have received advice from Dr John Lambert, the inaugural chief clinical information officer at NSW Health.

“He’s very excited about the app and has said that he’ll get involved and help us in any way that he can. We’re still trying to get an audience with some people in government who can appreciate how ugent it is to find a solution that still maintains people’s privacy,” he said.

The team is also in early discussions with other significant members of the Australian tech sector about the app.

It’s unclear how the federal government is approaching the issue of a contact tracing app and how far along in the process it is, while developers race to get a product out to the public. A contact tracing app relies on having mass usage, and only one will likely be adopted widely.

“At the end of the day as long as there’s an app that everyone can use to contain this epidemic then that’s a win no matter what. If it can be an app that manages to do that while safeguarding people’s privacy, that’s a better scenario. If it can be ours then that’s even better still,” Mr Armstrong said.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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