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Covid-19 contact tracing apps: room for innovative startups

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Hailed as crucial tools in the battle against Covid-19, a flood of contact tracing apps have hit the market. But what role do startups have to play in battling the pandemic?

  • Learn from past setbacks: tracing apps must address privacy and security concerns
  • Adapt and adopt: many companies are repurposing their technology to enter this market
  • Collaboration is key: partnering with others offers many opportunities

The world is embracing contact tracing technology like never before, as countries encourage millions of smartphone users to download apps that track their movements. At the same time, organisations are surveying the technology landscape to get their workers safely back in the office.

But the initial optimism that contact tracing apps could play a major role in the fight against Covid-19 has been dampened, with low uptake from citizens and setbacks along the way.

In late September 2020, the UK Government released its contact tracing app, several months after intended. Powered by a joint Apple and Google-developed system, which was made available to public health agencies in May, the app was downloaded by more than one million people across England and Wales within its first day.

Early successes in contact tracing tech

Time and money have been plunged into country-wide apps, but there have been difficulties, stemming from concerns surrounding privacy and low uptake.

On the other hand, MIT Technology Review’s Covid Tracing Tracker rates the German and Irish contact tracing apps highly among their peers, based on their high uptake. Their success, according to MIT Technology Review, stems from factors including the management of expectations and making the app’s source code open for inspection.

Startups are also making the cut. One such early success (with a caveat) is the Care19 app. Originally designed by a Microsoft engineer to track American football fans travelling to championships, the app has been repurposed to retrace the steps of people who test positive for the virus.

Both the North and South Dakota governments urged the usage of the locally-developed anonymous app, but it was soon discovered that the app violated its privacy policy by sharing personal data with an outside company.

Since then, the privacy policy has been amended and the app has been continually endorsed by the Dakota governments, whose support played a key role in the app’s uptake.

Business opportunities in contact tracing

It’s clear that a general consumer app could fall short of widespread adoption as countries can’t generally force citizens to use the app. However, startups can reap rewards if companies or other organisations help to drive uptake.

Opportunities abound for those that focus on virus-proofing offices, as companies strive to get their workers back to work.

Again, the work of larger companies has hit headlines in this space—in April, Ford Motor testing of wearable technology hit headlines. The wristbands, developed by Samsung Electronics, alert employees when they come within six feet of each other.

But this is just a preview of the technology that companies may seek to install as the workforce returns. It doesn’t require starting from scratch either—many companies are pivoting their technology and repurposing their inventions.

Take Chicago startup Proxfinity as an example. Its smart badge, which was originally designed to help people network at large events, is now a tracking product called the Rescue smart badge.

Eyes on the future of contact tracing apps

New and different types of technology, including artificial intelligence (AI), will need to be used in the fight against the pandemic.

Singapore and Kolkata-based Internet of Things (IoT) company Hipla Technologies is already travelling down this road, with the launch of software-as-a-service solution Contatrack.ai. Using IoT, AI and computer vision capabilities, the solution helps companies with contact tracing and enables employees to maintain social distancing.

More collaborations are expected to be announced, giving companies a competitive edge and access to additional resources.

AI startup Diveplane has united with two technology providers to launch a privacy-focused contact tracing solution, while IoT startup Nodle is part of a non-profit foundation—Coalition Network.

The Coalition Network also includes France's National Institute for Research in Digital Science and Technology (Inria), which has been entrusted with France’s StopCovid project efforts to develop a contact tracing app.

For large and small technology companies alike, the road ahead is unfamiliar terrain but the unprecedented demand for contact tracing apps calls for unprecedented innovation.

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