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Taking Cue From Other Countries, Centre Launches Aarogya Setu Mobile App To Monitor Coronavirus Cases, Curb Transmission

The Aarogya Setu mobile application developed by the government aims to strengthen contact tracing and dissemination of relevant medical advisories to contain the spread of COVID-19

Taking Cue From Other Countries, Centre Launches Arogya Setu Mobile App To Monitor Coronavirus Cases, Curb Transmission
  • Government of India launched the mobile app ‘Aarogya Setu’ on April 2
  • The app helps people assess themselves for COVID-19 by feeding in symptoms
  • App can alert people in case they come in contact with an infected person

New Delhi: With an aim to raise awareness and connect people with essential health services in the wake of the ongoing coronavirus crisis, the Government of India launched a mobile app called ‘Aarogya Setu’ on April 2. Urging citizens to download Aarogya Setu app, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, said on Tuesday, during his address to the nation on the extension of coronavirus lockdown, that the app will become an essential tool in India’s fight against coronavirus and must be downloaded in large number for the successful tracing of people with COVID-19. He urged people to download the app. According to an official from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, since the research on vaccines and medicines to treat coronavirus is still underway, the central government along with the medical community is trying to devise ways to curtail the outbreak, and the mobile app is one such measure towards the containment efforts along with testing and isolating people. Aarogya Setu Mobile App helps people assess themselves by putting in their symptoms and also alerts them in case they have come in close proximity with a COVID-19 positive person by using GPS (Global Positioning System) and Bluetooth. The official said,

Aarogya Setu app is a contact tracing solution designed to help in breaking the chain of infection and connect the patient with the healthcare system and the government directly. So if you had lunch with someone who tested positive for coronavirus, say after 10 days, Arogya Setu would let you know.

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Highlighting the role of mobile app technology on NDTV recently, Amitabh Kant, CEO, NITI (National Institution for Transforming India) Aayog had also urged everyone to download Aarogya Setu mobile app citing its usefulness to reach out to more people in the fight against coronavirus.

How Does Aarogya Setu App Work?

Available in 11 languages for both Android and iOs, the app generates a unique digital ID for each user on the server of the app once a user registers on it. At the time of registration, information about the user like name, phone number, age, sex, profession and countries visited in the last 30 days is collected and stored securely under the unique digital ID on a server operated and managed by the Government of India.

The app then asks people to self-diagnose their condition and assess their risk level by filling the ‘self-assessment’ form provided in the app. This will help people to ascertain if they have a risk of being infected by coronavirus or they have common flu without going to a hospital and being at risk of close contact with patients. If the result of the self-assessment test is either Yellow or Orange, it indicates that the user is at a high risk of being infected by COVID-19 and must seek medical assistance and follow self-isolation advisory of the Union Health Ministry. But if the user is not unwell and does not show any COVID-19 symptoms then the result of the self-assessment test is Green which indicates that the person is not at risk.

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Apart from letting people self-diagnose and self-report themselves, the app also alerts the users in case they come in close proximity (within six feet) with someone with high risk or turns out to be a COVID-19 patient later. For this, it uses the location data of the phone along with the phone’s Bluetooth.

According to George S Christopher, the co-founder of MacAppStudio, a Chennai-based IT company that has developed ‘traceCOVID19’ mobile app technology similar to the technology used in Aarogya Setu, on coming in close proximity, the wireless signals of Bluetooth will be quietly exchanged between phones and will be recorded in the app’s database. Later on, if a person becomes COVID-19 positive, the government will use their phone number to find the unique digital ID of the user on the app server. Once the ID is ascertained, all the phone’s that came close to patient’s phones, in other words, the data captured by the Bluetooth of other users that came close to the user’s phone, will be sent an alert alerting them that they must isolate themselves and get COVID-19 tests done. For the privacy and safety of the patient, the alert message does not carry the name or phone number or any other identity-related information.

All the information related to health and travel history of the user along with their movement, location and contact with others is stored in the server in a concealed or encrypted way under the digital ID of the user. This information, according to the ‘Terms and Conditions’ and ‘Private Policy’ of the app, can be used only by the government for medical purposes. To ensure that the information of the user is safe, the stored data is deleted after every 30 days.

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If the app indicates that the user is at risk of coronavirus, the user can find further instructions on self-isolation, medical advisories and helplines numbers on the app itself. It also provides numbers of COVID-19 help centres and instructions on self-isolation and measures to be taken if the user develops symptoms.

While the aim of the app is to dramatically increase contact tracing, it may not serve the purpose in some cases because it is completely dependent on the information related to symptoms fed into the app by users. This may exclude People who are asymptomatic as the app will identify such person as safe even though they may become carriers of the virus and unknowingly spread the virus to others they come in contact with. In this scenario, if the person starts showing the symptoms later on, the people who came in contact with this person cannot be alerted.

Another scenario where the app may run into issues is when the user enters their symptoms improperly or puts in false information. In such a scenario too it will not be possible for the app to identify such a person as a potential threat and alert those who come in contact with the person.

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According to a 36-year-old- user Sumit Sharma, the app only works if everyone around has the app running and have their location and Bluetooth on. Another challenge highlighted by Chaya Gupta, Jaipur based social activist, is that the app is not useful for those who do not have a smartphone. She said,

Contact tracing is crucial in the fight against coronavirus but there is still a large population that doesn’t have a smartphone including many elderlies. Digital India must develop something to cater to this population as well.

Citing privacy concerns, Ms. Gupta said that the use of an app that is constantly monitoring movements of people and sharing the data with government should be temporary and limited to these unprecedented times only.

NDTV spoke with Dr. Surya Kant, Professor and Head of Department of Respiratory Medicine, King George’s Medical University (KGMU) Lucknow to understand the usefulness of the app for the medical community. He said,

The app is definitely very useful as it will make the potential patient alert about their risk level. This will encourage them to seek the required medical support before it is too late. During the current lockdown, people are not going to move around a lot. It is useful for the frontline healthcare staff as well as to know if they came in contact with somebody who was tested positive or has symptoms in the locations they went to provide services. In this way, they can take the necessary measures to protect themselves and self-isolate to protect others.

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According to Mr. Christopher, in a population of more 130 crore, the app has reached to only three crore people as of now. He said that it would need over 26 crore people (20 per cent of the population) to participate in this app-based monitoring of coronavirus disease to predict the spread of the virus. He said,

Contact tracing is extremely important right now. The next few months are extremely crucial for controlling the disease and this technology can prove to be a powerful tool. Sure, much of what the app needs to do to achieve its purpose could affect personal privacy but the app has incorporated in its design few privacy protections features also. For example, the app has strict data retention policies that ensure all information collected is removed after a specified duration. Also, the use of this app is being recommended for the crisis period only and can be uninstalled anytime afterwards.

He further added that currently the use of the app is entirely voluntary and those who do not wish their data to collected can simply choose not to download it. He added that nobody is forced to use it unless the government collaborates with Google and Apple and their respective app stores download this app or a similar app by default in people’s phones and then people may eventually start using the app but it is highly unlikely to happen in India considering the fact that it is a democratic country.

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How Are Other Countries Tracking COVID-19?

Mr. Christopher highlighted that countries like China, South Korea and Singapore have used smartphone apps to monitor people with the disease with some success.

While talking about mobile apps WeChat, the instant messaging app and AliPay, the online payment platform, which are being popularly used in China to trace COVID-19 spread, Mr. Christopher said that these apps are even more invasive but have proven to be successful especially as the country is now lifting the lockdown. These apps issue coloured QR (Quick Response) codes to people after they have filled in a survey form with information like body temperature and health background. The green, yellow and red code determine whether the person can go out or not and officials at various checkpoints across the country check these apps in people’s phone to see whether they are allowed to go anywhere. People with green code are free to move outside their house. He said,

China’s contact tracing style is the most effective because it has mandated everyone to use it which a democratic country like India cannot do and such apps will work effectively only if used by enough people. This is why when we get requests from state governments to help them with the tracing app technology, we tell them to go with the one that the central government has already launched instead of creating a separate app. Almost everyone in China has either one or both apps installed in their phones. Local authorities in China are controlling citizens’ movements via checking these apps and even people are responding well to this system and say it makes them feel safe.

Singapore’s TraceTogether App shares “proximity information” when another device with the app installed is nearby, he said. The phones which have TraceTogether installed calculate the approximate distance between users (via Bluetooth) and the duration and this data is stored for 21-days. Once a new patient with the app is confirmed, the authorities can automatically contact anyone potentially at risk.

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The United Kingdom is experimenting with mobile app technology on similar lines with FluPhone app which also uses Bluetooth for interaction between phones and for users to report flu-like symptoms.

Earlier this month, Google also ventured into analysing the location data but according to Mr. Christopher, while it may be helpful to see if people are following social distancing and staying at home, it may not be as useful for contact tracing.

To enhance contact tracing and enable governments around the world to strengthen contact tracing, Google and Apple have announced a collaboration. The aim of the collaboration is to develop more robust solutions for the government, enable a broader Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform so that more people can be included in the tracing process. According to Mr. Christopher, the collaboration will prove useful as more research and development towards this cause will enable interaction between a broader ecosystem of apps and government health authorities which is the need of the hour.

He asserted that while there may be some shortcomings in using apps for tracking COVID-19, it is still better than depending on manual tracking of the infected people as it is not possible to test each citizen and people coming forward to self-report their symptoms is the need of the hour in the fight against coronavirus.

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