While there’s not much fun in the lockdowns and restrictions that have been become our lives these past several months, the tech space has certainly seen plenty of exciting innovation, including countless companies adjusting their efforts to help combat the COVID-19 virus. It’s included new sanitization, distancing, screening and monitoring, and other health and safety solutions from individual companies, but it’s also brought about a number of collaborative projects.
The most widely known collaboration is certainly the contact tracing technology developed by Apple and Google. Now, The Linux Foundation, which includes most of the biggest names in tech among its members, is launching the Linux Foundation Public Health (LFPH) initiative with an impressive list of Premier members.
Covid Watch, Kiel University of Applied Sciences, and US Digital Response are also part of the effort as nonprofit associate members.
The organization’s mission is to leverage open source software to help PHAs (Public Health Authorities) – which were resource-strained even before this crisis – combat not only COVID-19, but other pandemics as well. Its initial focus is to help PHAs deploy an app based on the Google Apple Exposure Notification (GAEN) system, and then plan on expanding into testing, tracing, and isolation activities as well. The group is also keen on driving collaboration between PHAs, developers, tech companies, and academics and researchers to create a series of best practices around implementation, adoption, privacy, and security.
The group’s initial focus centers around two existing hosted notification projects, COVID Green and COVID Shield, which are already being deployed in Canada, Ireland, and several U.S. states.
COVID Shield is the work of a volunteer team from Shopify and is being deployed in Canada. The app includes three components: a mobile app, a server, and a web-based portal for results. The mobile app runs in the background and uses Bluetooth technology to collect and share random IDs with other nearby devices with the app. If one of the users tests positive (confirmed by a healthcare professional) for COVID-19, they are able to opt in to anonymously share data to inform others of potential exposure.
The server is used to collect and store the random ID codes generated when users upload positive test results. It also generates the unique temporary codes that allow users to upload their test results. The web portal allows healthcare professional to similarly share the unique codes that can be shared with individuals to upload their results and is an optional component, since the same task can be accomplished with the server.
The important part is that no personal information is collected and there is no connected between the temp codes and individual test results. The biggest key to the success of any contact tracing app is participation, and the biggest challenge seems to be convincing users use of the apps does not put their personal information into the public domain and all data is completely anonymous.
COVID Green was developed by a team at NearForm as part of the Irish Government’s response to the pandemic. It was deployed by Ireland’s Health Services Executive (HSE) two weeks ago and has been adopted by more than a third of the country’s adult population. Ireland’s HSE donated the code to The Linux Foundation and is prepared to assist other governments in their initiatives.
In addition to the COVID Shield and COVID Green apps, the TCN Coalition is also merging into LFPH. The TCN Coalition is a prior collaborative, cross-industry effort to support privacy preservation in interoperable contact tracing and notification apps.
With the global scale of COVID-19, individual vendor solutions are certainly helpful and warranted, but it’s truly an ideal case for a major collaborative effort. It’s an even better one for open source software as a means of ensuring different apps can work together effectively to maximize their effectiveness in creating a scalable pandemic solution. As an open source solution, the work of the LFPH can support COVID-19 efforts globally without locking any government or organization into closed or proprietary technologies, enabling better pandemic management everywhere.