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A Smartphone App Developed In Kansas City Could Help Health Departments Trace Cases Of COVID-19

Developers of the COVID Safe Paths app say that data is secure because it's saved on a user's phone rather than going to a server.
Al J. Smith
Developers of the COVID Safe Paths app say that data is secure because it's saved on a user's phone rather than going to a server.

The COVID Safe Paths app keeps a log of where a user has been, but privacy experts worry about how that personal information could be used in the future.

Local health departments are scrambling to hire and train people to be contact tracers — investigators who reach out to people infected with the coronavirus and anyone with whom they may have come into contact.

Experts say it's crucial in preventing the further spread of COVID-19.

But case investigations are time-consuming, and keeping track of people who have been exposed to make sure they’re isolating can be tedious. In some places, health department contact tracers have faced resistance and even hostility from the community.

A team of Kansas City-based entrepreneurs helped develop an app they think could help take care of some of that work.

How it works

COVID Safe Paths tracks a user’s location every five minutes. Should that person become infected with COVID-19, they can turn that information – with certain identifying locations redacted – over to their local health department.

“People's memories are fallible and you forget things,” says Riddhiman Das, CEO of Kansas City-based Triple Blind, which helped develop the app. He says this takes the burden off a person diagnosed with the virus to remember everywhere they’ve been and everyone they’ve seen the previous 14 days.

The app is in the hands of the MIT Media Lab, which says it’s partnering with public health officials across the globe to roll out the technology.

Users who have not been infected can download anonymized data sets of public locations where they might have been exposed to a diagnosed case of COVID-19.

“This private way of determining that you did come into contact with (the virus), enables you to make a more informed decision as to whether you do need to get tested or seek health care,” Das says.

But some experts worry about whether that data is safe.

Protecting your health data

Das says that because the data collected by Safe Paths isn’t sent to a server or a cloud, it adds a layer of security.

“Which means all of the data that is gathered by that person by just using the app stays on their (own) phone. And the only person that might be able to get it is the health care authority of their particular jurisdiction with express explicit permission,” Das says.

But University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor Ann Marie Marciarille says what happens after that is just as important.

“At some point, the health authority is going to store that data somewhere so that they can then disperse it to interested parties,” Marciarille says.

She says she has questions about how long a health department will keep the information and how they might use it once the pandemic is over.

“So then the question becomes, do you have confidence? It's really about confidence in whatever system the public health authority has set up to safeguard this information, to destroy it when it's no longer necessary to be on them,” Marciarille says.

Marciarille, who teaches health law and healthcare regulation, says information about people who’ve had COVID-19 may be very valuable for research purposes.

Researchers may want to continue tracking COVID-19 patients to see what happens months or even years after their recovery.

On the flip side, people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies might become more desirable to employers, who could be interested in purchasing such information.

Reaching a critical mass

For a contact tracing app to be really successful, enough people have to get on board.

Das says if 30 percent of a particular area were using that app, that would be enough to provide a useful look at where people have been traveling.

He says public health officials in Kansas City have been receptive to new technology.

“I've been very impressed with the forward-looking nature of how the counties in the area are approaching the adoption of new and innovative solutions like this one, Das says.

KCUR reached out to the Mid-America Regional Council, and health departments in Johnson and Wyandotte counties in Kansas, and Jackson County and Kansas City in Missouri.

The Johnson County health department said it's currently hiring contact tracers and has “no recommendations at this time” for contact tracing apps.

Wyandotte County isn't recommending any COVID-19 tracing apps marketed to individuals.

"We do, however, see significant possibilities for the use of apps created to help public health department staff streamline their contact tracing efforts," spokesman Dave Reno said in an e-mail.

Reno said the county is running a pilot program for an app that will help the department follow up with people who have tested positive.

Michelle Pekarsky, with the Kansas City Health Department, told KCUR in an e-mail that the department is encouraging people to keep a journal of where they've been and with whom they've had contact, "but it does not need to be done electronically or through an app."

She added that health officials are still asking people to stay home and limit contact with others.

Jackson County isn't actively recommending the use of apps, but a spokeswoman said that the information provided by these apps "would be helpful in investigations."

A spokesperson for MARC said that they were not promoting the COVID Safe Paths app but that they were “supportive of contact tracing efforts generally.”

Marciarille is skeptical the app will gain broad traction — she says Americans are protective of their privacy. Still, she concedes that with so many people already using apps that track a user’s location, maybe that sense of privacy is changing.

“We’ve become kind of callow … or careless about our privacy and I think it may be a generational thing in part,” Marciarille says. “This may be the perfect app for a younger population.”

Slow news days are a thing of the past. As KCUR’s news director, I want to cut through the noise, provide context to the headlines, and give you news you can use in your daily life – information that will empower you to make informed decisions about your neighborhood, your city and the region. Email me at lisa@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @larodrig.
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