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The Apps Getting Us Through the Pandemic

Chelsea Davies

Author Image: Chelsea Davies
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Since the outbreak of Covid19, hopes have been pinned on technology and its potential to stop the virus spreading. Apps and the pandemic have become synonymous with the government’s track and trace app. People had high hopes that it would deliver a technological quick fix. However, those hopes were swiftly hampered by concerns surrounding data security and user reliability. The ethical implications of centrally storing personal information were widely criticised, as were concerns regarding the reliability of data input by the public. Several months have since passed without much progress. The question remains, will there be an app alternative to match traditional contact tracing and trained health professionals?

In this article, we take a fresh look at where things stand now, and what other app developments have been made. The ongoing furore surrounding track and trace apps may have dominated the discussion, but a great deal of other progress has been made. Developers have looked at the various challenges posed by Covid19 and made excellent headway producing apps to combat these.

To aid their research, King’s College London developed the Symptom Tracker. The mobile app asks volunteers to submit daily reports on their health. The findings have been invaluable for predicting future hotspots and understanding the effects of the virus.

London app developer Ryan Kelly was inspired by the community spirit he witnessed amongst family and neighbours. He focussed on solving the logistical challenges faced by vulnerable individuals. He created The Atrium Project to connect those most isolated with local volunteers. The app has proved hugely successful and has potential beyond the pandemic. It has already been adopted for use by homeless charities.

In the UK there is still a question-mark surrounding a nationwide contact tracing app that could potentially make all the difference. However, some countries have made significant progress. While the evidence isn’t yet conclusive, we take a look at some of the strongest examples and the lessons to be learned.

Apps and the pandemic.

Apps and the Pandemic: using community research to better understand Covid19

Developed by King’s College London, the Symptom Study App has enabled the largest community monitoring of Covid19 in the world. Over four million volunteers have downloaded the app in the UK so far. The huge amount of data provided has led to some incredibly valuable insights as scientists try to understand the virus.  

The app works by first asking for some personal information, including age and medical history. Then, users are requested to self-report how they are feeling each day, even if they are completely healthy. If they are feeling unwell, they are asked for more information. Questions include what their symptoms are, whether they have been tested for Covid19, and any recent hospital visits or treatments.

The app has achieved remarkable results. The developers have uncovered groups more at risk of developing severe symptoms, including post-menopausal woman. New symptoms have been identified, such as skin rashes. This is essential for scientists as they learn how to distinguish Covid19 from the seasonal cough and cold. Most strikingly, the app has been able to accurately predict future hotspots. The Covid Symptom’s Study Watch List highlighted Greater Manchester, Blackburn and Darwen, Calderdale and Kirklees as potential at-risk regions. Just one week later these areas were identified as areas of concerns requiring government intervention. [https://covid.joinzoe.com/post/predicting-hotspots-testing]

Such success has in large part been down to excellent volunteer engagement. The app seems to have struck the perfect balance between providing valuable, actionable insights without infringing on people’s personal information. A key difference is that data is actively added by the user, as opposed to continual location tracking.

Looking to the future, the app looks set to play a significant part in the ongoing fight against the virus throughout the potentially challenging winter months. The Department of Health and Social Care has recently announced a £2 million grant to ensure its continued operation. The technology is also already being used in the USA and Sweden. This international potential looks set to soar as the list of countries wanting to collaborate continues to grow.   

The Atrium: delivering community support to those most vulnerable

Understanding the science is of course essential to curbing the spread of Covid19. However, beyond the threat of the virus itself, there are many other difficulties facing individuals as they attempt to navigate the ‘new normal’. Following months of government-imposed social distancing, people are now more isolated than ever before. The logistical challenge of even the simplest tasks like fetching groceries is an ongoing difficulty for those who are shielding or less able. Responding to this need, app developers have turned their attention to providing logistical and emotional support for their communities.

London app developer Ryan Kelly saw the need for accessible, scalable technology that would connect community members. Having witnessed first-hand his mother buying food and essentials for elderly relatives and neighbours, Ryan realised this was a problem people were facing all over the UK. He developed an app that empowers vulnerable people to easily connect with volunteers available in their area and receive help with day to day tasks.

His previous experience building software systems that make websites more disability-friendly, meant that he was able to build a highly user-friendly app that senior citizens could navigate with ease. [https://lfpress.com/news/local-news/covid-19-young-londoners-app-finds-purpose-in-pandemic] Upon opening the app, users are greeted with a simple screen where you either select ‘I am a volunteer’ or ‘I need help’, and the process continues from there. 

As social distancing and lockdown measures remain intermittently in place across the country, the need for the app is ongoing. However, Ryan sees the platform being used far beyond the pandemic. Already, it is being used by 519 Pursuit, a grassroots group working with vulnerable and homeless Londoners. They are utilising the technology to help organise volunteers and bring supplies to those who need it most. Providing community support and efficiently connecting those in need with volunteers and services is an ongoing necessity. Repurposing the technology created in response to the pandemic is a rare but highly valuable positive to come from the outbreak of Covid19. 

Track and Trace – what happened and where are we now?

Dominating the technological discussion since the beginning of the pandemic has been the track and trace app, or more specifically its continued absence. From the outset, the British government opted for a different tactic. The NHSX’s Bluetooth based platform required data on people’s movements to be stored within a centralised database. Immediately, eyebrows were raised regarding privacy and the potential for misuse of such data. When Apple and Google collaborated to deliver an API compatible with both iOS and Android devices, they side-stepped this contentious issue by creating a decentralised system, where information would only ever be passed between devices. [https://www.digitalhealth.net/2020/08/timeline-what-happened-to-the-nhs-contact-tracing-app/]

Concerns regarding data security were not the only doubts raised. LSE Professor Robin Mansell questioned whether a contract tracing app could ever be adopted on the scale necessary for it to be effective. As 60% of over 60s do not own a smartphone, the technology would not reach the most at-risk demographic. [https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/medialse/2020/04/23/coronavirus-contact-tracing-apps-a-proportionate-response/

Despite these challenges, there have been some international successes. Northern Ireland has been praised for the data security in their StopCOVID NI app, which is using the decentralised system offered by Apple and Google. Almost 20% of the population in Northern Ireland have downloaded the app. [https://www.newsletter.co.uk/health/coronavirus/stop-covid-ni-app-downloaded-170000-times-just-week-2934139] It is also compatible with the Republic of Ireland’s Covid Tracker. Delivering interoperability between borders areas is a key step towards apps being able to provide accurate information as people travel outside their home country. [https://www.irishnews.com/news/northernirelandnews/2020/08/01/news/new-stopcovid-ni-app-praised-for-setting-a-benchmark-for-data-privacy-2022971/] There are definitely lessons to be learned here, but until there is more data, the effectiveness of nationwide tracking on limiting the spread of the virus remains inconclusive. 

Back in the UK, we now have a long-awaited, revamped app. A far cry from the initial contact tracing platform, this app now offers QR check-in, free test booking and a symptom checker.  Crucially, it does not centrally store any personal data. Trials have begun in the London Borough of Newham, an area which has been plagued with high coronavirus levels. [https://www.newham.gov.uk/news/article/488/new-nhs-test-and-trace-app-to-be-rolled-out-to-newham-residents-to-beat-covid-19] The app should be available for a national rollout by winter, but no specific date has been set.

Apps and the Pandemic – Endless Potential

Clearly, one app hasn’t proved to be the sole solution to tackling coronavirus. Instead, track and trace apps have come to work in conjunction with systems already in place. As we have continually heard on the news these are, dare we say it, unprecedented times – not only for health professionals but also for app developers.

There is already talk of how apps can be better used in future pandemics, evidence that we haven’t quite hit the mark this time around. But excellent progress has been made in areas such as research and community service. It is evident that apps which provide a service, with minimal invasiveness and stringent data protection are the most successful. They have an integral part to play in our response to the virus, but also provide valuable technology that can be utilised far beyond the pandemic.

Here at KIJO London we always stay one step ahead of the ever-changing digital trends for apps and websites, check back with us for more information on the latest developments.