Building a successful Covid Tracing app for the UK
5th June 2020

Countries around the world have been producing their own versions of Covid-19 track and trace apps. Australia was one of the first to introduce an app followed by India. The focus of the Coronavirus tracing app in the UK is to help stop the spread whilst coinciding with the easing of lockdown restrictions. It is with the hope that using this digital solution will dramatically slow the transmission of the virus by keeping people informed about cases in their area, therefore prompting caution and by tracking each and every case of the virus. 

This all sounds good in theory, but how can we ensure every case is documented? Lots of the elderly generation are without a smartphone, and play a key role in the pandemic. Downloads of the NHS version of the app are not being made mandatory so will the app reach its full potential and do its job? How will the NHS Covid-19 contact tracing app work? Here’s what you need to know!

Centralised vs decentralised 

Firstly, there’s been debate about which type of app should be used to build the Covid tracing app. There are two options – centralised and decentralised. The main dispute between the two is how the data is handled. The centralised version gathers the anonymous data inputted by users which is then uploaded to a remote server where contacts are matched. In the decentralised version, the remote server is removed and matches are done on the users device. There are pros and cons to both, but the centralised version is the approach the UK is taking, following suit to Australia and India, as it provides more information on how well the app is working and a more accurate indication of how the virus is spreading. 

Australia recently had issues with its centralised version where it wasn’t working properly on iphones, and Germany has ditched its centralised version in favour of a decentralised version. So it seems the centralised vs decentralised debate rages on.

Controversy over India’s Covid tracing app.

The UK’s approach to the app is in contrast to Indias. Whilst India’s version of the app has been highly publicised due to being one of the first, it’s also gained a lot of attention due to the fact they have made it mandatory for some people such as private sector workers and government officials to download the app.

It is also mandatory for people in certain zones of the country to download the app, with people facing prosecution if they don’t comply. There have also been concerns over how users’ privacy and data is handled. The problem being that Indias’ app heavily stores location data which makes it prying in terms of security. People have mentioned that storing location data isn’t essential and should only be shared in the smallest necessary circles. In order for the UK’s app to be successful it needs to not only vigilantly respect people’s privacy but the government needs to show it trusts the British people to download it off their own accord. 

How does the NHS version work?

The NHS version of the app was meant to be released in May, however its release has been delayed. Whilst this has caused some annoyance, as app developers we know that a release doesn’t always go smoothly and there is a lot of trial and error before getting the app right! The purpose of the app is clear: cases can be identified earlier, alerting contacts and reducing the spread of infection. 

The functionality of the app is minimal. The only feature for users is logging their symptoms. Which is perfect as it only has one aim. The app uses bluetooth to match contacts, so the user’s device would need to have bluetooth turned on all the time, (hello battery drain!) in order for it to work accurately. The bluetooth broadcasts a unique identifier number that exchanges identifiers from other devices. If a user hasn’t logged that they are suffering from symptoms, nothing will happen, and you will only be indicated via the app if you have been in contact with someone who has logged symptoms.  

What will happen to my data? 

Whilst the Covid tracing app, especially as a centralised version, does give certain authorities who need the data the opportunity to see your location and first half of your postcode, that’s pretty much the extent of it, and isn’t really much different to when you use Google Maps. Under the Data Protection law, it will just be like how any other app uses your data. All symptoms are submitted anonymously with just the first half of your postcode being logged to help experts better understand how the virus spreads in the community. 

However, since the app relies on bluetooth technology to match contacts together, and since bluetooth travels through walls, there is the concern that this may result in false positives in relation to neighbours or people on different floors of buildings who have never interacted. Overall, we’re excited to see what the UK’s version of the Covid tracing app entails. With other countries struggling for their app to be a success, we’re very hopeful that the UK gets it right!