HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A contact-tracing app that was downloaded by one-fifth of Ireland in 36 hours might undergo a pilot project in Pennsylvania that could go live in the coming weeks as part of an effort to more quickly contain coronavirus outbreaks by notifying people who may have been exposed, a state Health Department official said Wednesday.
The state Department of Health otherwise has said little about its plans for the app, other than it is seeking to introduce a mobile app and a $1.9 million contract with software developer NearForm Ltd of Ireland to deploy and maintain it.
At a hearing organized by state House Democrats, Lindsey Mauldin, a special assistant to state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, said department personnel are working with researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to figure out how to use the app in Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania is also working with Delaware, and surrounding states could join, Mauldin told lawmakers.
“We’re working on a pilot now and working on testing the app. We’re hoping to have it live, I believe, by the end of the August,” Mauldin said.
The app is based on smartphone technology developed by Apple and Google. A number of states are interested in using the Apple-Google technology for an app, but none has introduced one yet.
It is designed to automatically notify people if they might have been exposed to the coronavirus. It relies on Bluetooth wireless technology to detect when someone who downloaded the app has spent time near another app user who later tests positive for the virus.
The identity of app users will be protected by encryption and anonymous identifier beacons that change frequently, the companies have said.
Several states have rolled out apps using other approaches, such as satellite-based GPS location tracking, but there’s little evidence they have been successful. One of the first to launch, in Utah, has since disabled locating-tracking features.
In Pennsylvania, getting an app into operation is of the utmost importance before schools reopen for the fall semester, the Department of Health said in its contract proposal.
Its selection process for an app includes a requirement where the developer should have already been thoroughly tested in other states or jurisdictions.
A contract with NearForm isn’t signed, the department said.
But NearForm's app is already operational in Ireland, where its COVID Tracker app had more than 1 million downloads — about 20% of the population of Ireland and over a quarter of its smartphone users — within 36 hours of the July 7 launch, according to NearForm.
The app has won some praise in Europe. UK-based newspaper the Guardian described the Irish app as “a shiny success,” contrasting it to floundering efforts to roll out an app in Britain. The newspaper said the Irish app was the fastest-downloaded per capita in Europe and has started picking up cases of infection.
NearForm's app also meets the functionality and privacy criteria deemed necessary by Apple, Google and agencies in Gov. Tom Wolf's administration, the Department of Health wrote in the contract proposal.
Apps from other developers collected location data, geo-tagged individual phones or asked for microphone access to determine and validate proximity between phones, the department said.
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