The inside story of the development of the Covid Tracker app in Ireland

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At Future Human 2020, NearForm CTO Colm Harte explained what it was like to quickly transform the Covid Tracker Ireland app.

It’s been a roller coaster ride for NearForm, the developers of Covid Tracker Ireland, since its contact tracing app went live earlier this year. Shortly after its release, more than a million people had downloaded the app designed to help us track and stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Soon after, the months of work put into the app by Waterford-based NearForm paid off globally as its source code was chosen as an open source contact tracing project by the initiative. Linux Foundation Public Health.

Under the project name ‘Covid Green’, the source code for the Irish application is now made available to other public health authorities and their developers around the world for use and customization. As part of the agreement, NearForm maintains the source code repository on GitHub.

Now, the company can put its name on some of the world’s most prominent contact tracing applications, with its source code being used for applications in a number of states in the United States, including New York, as well as for applications. used by Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Five-day delay

Speaking at this year’s inaugural Future Human event, NearForm CTO Colm Harte revealed how the app was originally born. With the scale of the Covid-19 pandemic unfolding in Ireland in March, Harte said NearForm was tasked by the HSE to come up with a prototype contact tracing app in just five days.

Since modern smartphones aren’t designed with contact tracing in mind, the NearForm team had to speak with Google and Apple – the developers of Android and iOS, respectively – to find ways that would allow an app to Bluetooth-based tracing to operate, while maintaining user privacy.

“We had everything else in place,” Harte said. “We made the entire application work from end to end. We did lift the back end.

“But we had this fundamental problem. If we fail to get it to work reliably on iOS devices for proximity sensing, is this really a solution you can deploy for the general public? And the answer to that really came back with no, it just won’t be good enough. “

Apple and Google would eventually release an exhibition notification system built into Android and iOS to make it easier to find contacts. This followed a “decentralized model” where anonymized data is stored only on a person’s phone. However, this meant that NearForm quickly had to change its application design from a centralized model, which relies on storing user information and close contacts on a centralized server.

Why the decentralized model?

According to Harte, moving to a decentralized model was a good move for the app, especially when it came to making the public understand how these apps would work. “There had been a lot of concern in the media around, will this be effective? Will it work? And how will he handle my privacy? ” he said.

“Is this going to follow everything about me?” Will it know my location? So the combination of Bluetooth and the decentralized approach really helped answer a lot of these questions. “

With the code for the app being made open source, Harte said it’s important for the technology to face scrutiny of how it handles data and, fundamentally, how it works. Among those who analyzed the code were groups from the Science Foundation Ireland, the University of Belfast, the University of Pennsylvania, MIT and others.

“I think one of the reasons it was so successful was the fact that we had addressed the privacy issues,” he said. “A lot of information has been made public about how this application works exactly.

“It reassured people that they can be confident that this app is doing what it should do and that it is really just one more tool to help prevent the spread of Covid-19.”

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