Wednesday, 15 April 2020 09:42

Human-fronted contact tracing essential: Singapore COVID-19 app lead Featured

Human-fronted contact tracing essential: Singapore COVID-19 app lead Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

The leader of the team that developed TraceTogether, a Singapore Government app for tracing coronavirus contacts, has cautioned that any app using technology alone for a contact tracing system would be of no use unless those in charge of it were working with public health authorities right from the start.

The news that Google and Apple will pool their technology talent to develop technology that will do contact tracing has led to claims that it would help countries to lift lockdowns that have been imposed to curb the spread of COVID-19.

But Jason Bay, the product lead for TraceTogether, an app that Singapore open-sourced last month, warned against such expectations.

He said with all the excitement that surrounded the use of tech for contact tracing, he felt compelled to republish a portion of the policy brief and white paper that accompanied the open-sourcing of the app.

"If you ask me whether any Bluetooth contact tracing system deployed or under development, anywhere in the world, is ready to replace manual contact tracing, I will say without qualification that the answer is, No," Bay wrote in a post on Medium.

"Not now and, even with the benefit of AI/ML and — God forbid — blockchain ? (throw whatever buzzword you want), not for the foreseeable future."

He pointed out that there were critical factors (like ventilation) that a completely automated system would not be able to access.

"You cannot 'big data' your way out of a 'no data' situation. Period," Bay emphasised.

"Any attempt to believe otherwise, is an exercise in hubris, and technology triumphalism. There are lives at stake. False positives and false negatives have real-life (and death) consequences. We use TraceTogether to supplement contact tracing – not replace it.

"One thing that sets TraceTogether apart from most private efforts to build a Bluetooth contact tracer, is that we have been working closely with the public health authorities from day 1. Theory is theory. Application and execution is something else entirely. The team has shadowed actual real-life contact tracers in order to empathise with their challenges."

After detailing his reasons why technology alone could not be successful in contact tracing, Bay pointed out that Singapore's experience suggested "that contact tracing should remain a human-fronted process".

"Singapore’s contact tracers are on the frontline of the fight against COVID-19; they are able to do this because they incorporate multiple sources of information, demonstrate sensitivity in their conversations with Singaporeans who have had probable exposure to SARS-CoV-2, and help to minimise unnecessary anxiety and unproductive panic," he stressed.

"These are considerations that an automated algorithm may have difficulty explaining to worried users."

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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