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Coronavirus: How app developers large and small are working to help fight Covid-19

Computer Weekly looks at how a range of actors are using technology to help mitigate the various impacts caused by the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak

Developers large and small are mobilising around the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak to create new ways of dealing with the crisis using technology. 

Although most of the tools being developed at the moment are focused on tracking the spread of the virus, the projects range from chatbots and data visualisation software to tools that will help self-employed people claim financial relief.

To better understand the pandemic, some UK researchers have already developed the Covid Symptom Tracker app to help see how the virus is spreading and who is most at risk.

Developed via a collaboration between King’s College London, Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals and health data science company ZOE, the app asks users to fill in a range of data fields, including age, sex and postcode, as well as whether the individual has any pre-existing medical conditions or uses immunosuppressants.

Users are then asked to report on their health everyday by answering questions on a wide range of symptoms. This process, which takes one minute, helps the researchers understand how different symptoms are linked to the virus.

“Speaking to clinicians in the hospital, especially in the elderly you get very different symptoms to the young so this idea there is only two types of symptoms – fever and long-term cough – is wrong. It can occur in many different ways,” Tim Spector, a professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London who is leading the work, told the The Guardian.

Other researchers are also working on tracking apps, including a team of medical experts at Oxford University that are collaborating with NHSX to explore the feasibility of a coronavirus mobile app for instant contact tracing.

Integrated strategy

According to Digital Health, the team recommends that any apps being used should form part of a wider, integrated strategy to identify infected people and who they have recently been in contact with.

“Our analysis suggests that almost half of coronavirus transmissions occur in the very early phase of infection, before symptoms appear, so we need a fast and effective mobile app for alerting people who have been exposed,” said Professor Christophe Fraser of Oxford University’s Big Data Institute.

“Our mathematical modelling suggests that traditional public health contact tracing methods are too slow to keep up with this virus,” he added.

Other tracking apps are also being developed outside of larger research institutions and private actors with access to capital by ordinary people wanting to help their communities.

One such example is TrackTogether, an app built by three twentysomethings in London over the space of a weekend.

“The UK has only tested 97,019 people to date and many people self-reporting symptoms have not yet been tested. It’s also clear not everyone is responding to this emergency with the seriousness it warrants,” said its website.

“We hope that by mapping how many people are self-reporting symptoms and how many are self-isolating, we will empower users with knowledge of the extent to which the disease may be present in their local communities.”

Seven questions

Using off-the-shelf coding and web design tools, as well as publicly available application programming interfaces (APIs) from for the location data, TrackTogether asks users to answer seven questions to determine the geographical spread of both the infection and those self-isolating.

In the UK it has already had over 5,800 responses since it launched on the evening of the 22nd, with 24% of that number reporting coronavirus symptoms and 75 per cent self-isolating at the time of writing.

These are also broken down by age and local authority, so people can see how it is affecting people of different ages as well as the direct impact in their immediate area.

“We were assuming we would get a few clicks here and there but on the first day we got about 3,600 or so responses, and now we’re on the middle of the third day and its about 6,500 [globally],” said TrackTogether developer Rasheed Wihaib, head of product at education technology startup Scoodle in his day job.

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He added the groups design philosophy was to keep everything as simple as possible. This meant asking a limited number of questions that took into account both the need collect relevant, useful data, while also being aware of the user experience.

“A lot of these trackers are backed by research institutions that ask a lot of very specific questions, but I feel like people are starting to get fatigued so one point is to reduce the barrier to getting this data,” he said. “Our background is in consumer apps so we’re trying to bring that element to it, we believe the best way we can fight Covid-19 is leveraging those skills.”

Wihaib added the team of three is currently looking for data partnerships so that the information they have collected can be linked with other sources – a number of medical schools that conduct research have already been in touch as of publication.

For organisations, anonymous workplace misconduct reporting service Vault Platform, whose clients have reported an “uptick” in Coronavirus-related racial discrimination since mid-February, has added a Covid-19 reporting feature to its enterprise mobile app

The idea is to help human resources (HR) departments stay on top of how the outbreak is affecting their employees.

Anyone using the app to report directly to their company about Coronavirus symptoms can also do this anonymously so as to avoid having any stigma attached to them.

“The Coronavirus pandemic is resulting in an increased level of discrimination, bullying, and harassment in the workplace. This is not just race-related but also extends to those that have tested positive for the virus as well as those with symptoms of sickness,” said Vault co-founder and CEO Neta Meidav.

Supporting businesses and the self-employed

A number of organisations are also developing or providing free access to already-existing tools to help a variety of organisations and sectors cope with the consequences of the coronavirus outbreak.

Mindsay, for example, does “customer experience automation” for the travel and hospitality industry, and will be offering free access to a dedicated Covid-19 customer support chatbot for a period of three months.

With the ability to automate p to 80% of requests, the aim is to help ease customer stress and reduce support costs for companies that may not have the staff to deal with long phone queues by quickly answering people’s virus-related questions.

“Our platform shows a more than 7000% increase since March in questions about coronavirus and we expect this to continue to grow,” said co-founder and CEO Guillaume Laporte. “To help, our bot can resolve a large number of these requests by handling conversations including vouchers, cancellations, and the latest news, so that brands can focus on weathering this storm.”

To ease communication between NHS health workers and those being treated at this time, artificial intelligence-powered videoconferencing platform PixselChat will be releasing its beta for use a week earlier than intended.

While products like Skype and Zoom only allow for communication in one language, PixselChat allows for instant video, speech or text conversations in over 100 languages.

“With the provision of self-isolation I think PixselChat can be very useful, especially for our NHS as the health workers can speak to people whose their first language is not English,” said Dr Sepi Chakaveh, CEO of PixselChat and winner of the Everywoman Innovator Award 2020.

Technology is not a silver bullet

“It’s really encouraging to see the tech community around the world pitch in to try and tackle the new, daunting challenges of Covid-19 with innovation,” said Jeni Tennison, CEO of the Open Data Institute, adding that we must be careful not see technology as a “silver bullet” to dealing with Covid-19.

“Over half of one of the most at-risk groups, older people over 75, don’t use the internet. Nearly half of those over 55 years old don’t have a smartphone,” she said.

“There’s a limit to how much we can rely on technology to directly help the most vulnerable during this pandemic and there’s a risk it may increase existing inequalities in access to services and support. This crisis demands a collective response. Technology would be best targeted at helping people help the most needy.”

While many of the applications popping up to deal with the coronavirus are legitimately designed to help people through the outbreak, analysis of Android telemetry from Google Play and other third-party marketplaces has revealed that both relatively harmless opportunist developers and malicious cyber criminals are getting involved.

Bitdefender researchers, for example, identified 579 apps that contained coronavirus-related keywords in their manifest. While 560 were deemed as legitimate, others had nothing to do with the virus, and some even contained malicious adware or malware, said Bitdefender.

Others, like Leeds-based business intelligence software provider Panintelligence, have committed to aiding struggling firms in their local regions. While it is usually reserved for software suppliers, Panintelligence will be making its full software package available for 90 days so that local businesses are better able to navigate the situation through real-time data monitoring.

On 17 March 2020, the government announced a £350bn package of measures to support businesses suffering from a downturn in trade as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, but at the time of writing very little has been given in the way of support for self-employed workers.

Dave Chaplin, CEO of tax consultancy ContractorCalculator, told Computer Weekly the situation has led to contractors being “sent home” by clients, leaving them with no means of financially supporting themselves or their families.

“There are firms where the vast amount of software development is done by IT contractors. And those projects will just be put on hold, and [the contractors] will be out the door because if the money’s not coming in, then they can’t get paid. It’s going to be extremely bleak,” he said.

To help the self-employed, as salaried workers are entitled to sick pay if their ability to work is compromised by the virus or any other illness, financial technology (fintech) professionals have created Covid Credit, a cloud-based tool developed with open banking technology to help people prove their income losses.

Although it is only in development and has not yet been green-lit for use by the government, the service will access transaction data from the bank accounts of self-employed people (made possible by open banking regulations) to prove an individual’s earnings.

By collecting historic banking data from the last 12 months the idea is that it will show a potential loss of income in the future.

International efforts

Outside of the UK similar efforts are underway across the globe as people scramble for ways to deal with the impacts of Covid-19. In Canada, for example, Montreal-based software company VuWall Technology will be providing a free visualisation tool to help key organisations manage front line response efforts.

The software grants access to and integrates visual information from many different sources on one screen, including web pages, computers on the network, IP cameras and local applications.

“In this time of crisis, coordination teams within municipalities, newsrooms, and healthcare facilities are actively monitoring the Covid-19 pandemic and managing response efforts,” said Paul Vander Plaetse, CEO at VuWall. “These decision-makers need to access all kinds of information in order to make fast decisions and share information with their colleagues.”

In other countries governments are getting directly involved in the creation of tracking apps. In the case of South Korea, for example, the Ministry of the Interior and Safety has launched a smartphone app to monitor citizens on lockdown through GPS to ensure they are not breaking quarantine rules.

Other governments, however, have taken less intrusive measures. One such example is Singapore, where the government has created a Covid-19 contact tracking app TraceTogether.

It works by exchanging short-distance Bluetooth signals between phones to detect other users in close proximity, rather than retrieving constant location data from a user’s device.

According to Jeni Tennison, CEO of the Open Data Institute, it is critical that best practices are still being followed around the responsible and ethical development of technology. “The approaches and impact of what gets built today may be with us for some time, so we need to have an eye on long term consequences even as we're meeting immediate needs,” she said.

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