The Coronavirus is back. Once again, we’re back indoors as the authorities scramble to fight the 2nd wave. As case numbers continue to rise, the playbook remains the same. Identify the infected, isolate them for treatment, test anyone they’ve been in contact with, and repeat. Formally known as contact tracing, the process of identifying the close contacts of a patient is a crucial step in tackling the virus. Given the infectious nature of the coronavirus, many nations have turned towards technology to support the contact tracing process. Notable examples include South Korea, Singapore, New Zealand, and Taiwan. Now with Stay Safe by the ICTA, Sri Lanka too has embraced technology for contact tracing.
What is Stay Safe?
In a nutshell, Stay Safe is a QR-based and SMS-based contact tracing app. Whenever you enter or leave a bus, a temple, a government office, or a business, you’ll be asked to scan a QR code. If it’s your first time using the app, then you’d be redirected to a page where you’ll be asked to enter your name and NIC / Passport Number. Afterwards, you’ll only need to scan the QR code at future locations to check-in and check-out. Alternatively, you can do this same process by sending an SMS to 1919 whenever you enter and leave a location.
Once these details are logged, it will be compared with data of other people in the same location at the time. Later, if it was found that 1 of these people tested positive for the coronavirus, then you’ll be instantly informed. Afterwards, you’ll be directed by the authorities of the necessary precautions to take, including self-quarantine, to limit the spread of the virus.
Furthermore, Stay Safe also works with third-party apps. Already, Helakuru has introduced support for the contact tracing solution. This comes in the form of a new feature on the popular app called HelaQR.
Any public or private entity can obtain a unique QR code with a Location ID to support Stay Safe. The system is open to everyone from your neighbourhood kade to a tuk driver to a 5-star restaurant. Even businesses operating in office buildings with multiple floors can request multiple QR codes with a Location ID for each floor. All that’s required is to sign up on the Stay Safe website. For individual users, there’s no sign up needed. Simply scan the QR code or send an SMS to 1919 for checking in and out.
Describing the potential of the app, Shanka Perera said, “This could be the next ‘Suwa Seriya’ for all Sri Lankans in the context of the current COVID-19 pandemic to experience routine life with minimum disruption. Big thanks to the team comprising of Christopher Adikaram, Nuzhi Meyen, Kanishka Bandara for their efforts in bringing the idea to life and support from the ICTA team to get it off the ground.”
A contact tracing process that meets the needs of Sri Lankans
When looking at contact tracing apps across the world, you’ll find these to be almost exclusively designed around smartphones. As per the latest data from GSMA, Sri Lanka enjoys a smartphone penetration rate of approximately 50%. Though, the latest data from the TRCSL states there are over 27 million cellular connections. Disregarding individuals who have multiple connections, a large portion of the population still doesn’t have access to smartphones. Instead, opting to use simple yet affordable feature phones. Further, such individuals are likely most at risk.
Upon recognizing these realities, the ICTA had decided to include SMS support for Stay Safe. Speaking to ReadMe, CTO of ICTA, Hiranya Samarasekera explained, “For us to succeed, we must have a solution that works at all levels of society. It is for this reason that we have also opted to also support SMS with Stay Safe to ensure maximum coverage amongst the populace.”
SMS support may help individuals with feature phones utilize the system. But what of small business owners with feature phones looking to sign up and obtain a QR / SMS code? These may include taxi drivers, roadside food sellers, your neighbourhood kade among others. Shanaka shared that they’ll be able to reach out directly to the authorities who would assist them in obtaining a QR / Location code.
Balancing public safety and individual data protection
“We can’t live in a state of lockdown forever. We need to safely open up schools, businesses, places of worship, and other locations. Having a reliable means of contact tracing is a step towards ensuring safety and establishing the normal for continuity,” explains Hiranya, highlighting the need for contact tracing.
Since the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, contact tracing apps have helped some countries contain the spread. A notable example is South Korea. Since the beginning, the country utilized a combination of rigorous testing and detailed contact tracing. Today, the nation is among the few that have managed to keep the disease in check.
However, a criticism of its contact tracing approach has been it comes at the cost of individual privacy. It comes at a time when many of us are concerned about keeping our data secure. Yet, given the deadly nature of the coronavirus, such data is a necessity for the good of society. A fine line needs to be struck to ensure public safety and the protection of individual data.
So how does Stay Safe ensure your data is safe? When quizzed about this, Hiranya shared, “We are collecting sensitive information to save lives. Data security is a paramount priority. All data is stored in the secure Lanka Government Cloud. Beyond this, access to this data will be limited to the health authorities responsible for the sole purpose of COVID-19 contact tracing.”
Technology isn’t a magic silver bullet against the virus
Currently, if you visit anywhere, the only effort taken to simplify contact tracing is an A4 sheet at the entrance. It would ask you for your name, address, and contact number. Often you’ll find that the information on this sheet is ineligible due to messy handwriting. With Stay Safe, it’s possible to fix this issue while making contact tracing faster and more effective.
But Hiranya emphasized, “Technology is not a magic silver bullet that can slay the coronavirus. This is why ICTA is looking at a multimodal approach to use technology to respond to COVID-19.” Earlier in May, researchers found that for voluntary contract-tracing apps to be effective, approximately 60% of the population would have to use it and follow its instructions. Otherwise, it would necessitate the need for strict measures like lockdowns.
Even then as Professor at Oxford University, Christophe Fraser points out, “It (contact tracing apps) will prevent infections, and it’s an additive thing that supplements other interventions like social distancing, hygiene, mask-wearing, and much more testing.” As such, while health authorities fight this 2nd wave, there’s a heavy responsibility on us all as a society. If we’re to get through this crisis, then we must all practise social distancing, wear facemasks, and adhere to other health guidelines.
Taking steps towards resuming life
Sharing the current status of the app, Chairman of the ICTA, Jayantha De Silva said, “The app is currently undergoing the preliminary stages of implementing a database that records all employees’ locations of all companies, which can be accessed by anyone regardless of whether they have a smartphone or not. The database will be implemented by Sunday (08 of November), and the app will be launched officially on Monday (09th of November).”
Ultimately, the introduction of Stay Safe is a step in the right direction. By supporting all kinds of mobile devices, it offers an option for all of us to resume our daily lives. Albeit under a new normal. Even then, it’s imperative that we remember to follow the necessary steps to protect not just ourselves but also others from the coronavirus. So next time you absolutely have to leave the house, be sure to wear your mask, practise social distancing, and check-in with Stay Safe wherever you go.