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Companies can't wait months for a tracing app

Why would business leaders wait for a contact tracing app if action can be taken now?
May 28, 2020

This morning there was another unexpected turn in the corona-app saga. First the government was going to launch an app, then an app turned out not to be necessary, then we switched to manual contact tracing centers, and now it turns out that we still want to introduce an app. It is clear that the government has entered rather unknown territory.

Of course, digital tools for contact tracing are a good idea. But it will still take months before that app is really there. Moreover, the regions (which are responsible for contact tracing) still have to decide whether they want to use such an app.

The missed opportunity is that we don't seem to learn from the experiences in other countries. There, the number of downloads of tracing apps remains at a very low level - too low to deliver anything. A month ago, Austria was put forward as a shining example. Today it appears that the number of downloads remains at less than 7%. (1)

It's not hard to see why. Citizens know what can happen to their data once they share it through the "big brother in their pocket", as the smartphone is also called.

Even if an app would initially respect privacy, there is nothing to prevent the government from changing the rules along the way if it deems it "necessary". We only have to look at the manual contact tracing and how quickly all privacy considerations were pushed aside there - to the dismay of many, including the Data Protection Authority. (2). It's not so surprising that the Belgian is now reluctant to share private information with those contact tracers.

Besides, we don't have weeks or months to keep this pandemic under control. We need to work on solutions now, especially in companies. The front line of Covid-19 is no longer the hospital, but the shop floor. Companies are the main source of infection today with 51%. (3)

The good news is that companies are the best environment to roll out digital tracing. And they have the most impact on the economy when it comes to safeguarding the health of employees. The latter is what unites employees and employers: with the right tools, together they can effectively and efficiently break the curve and prevent a second lockdown.

It is especially important in the context of companies to avoid false positives. It is very damaging if employees have to be unjustly quarantined. That is the main reason why Bluetooth is not appropriate for office environments. The thin walls there are specially designed to allow radio waves such as Wi-Fi to pass through (do the test yourself: with music in wireless earphones and phone on the table, walk around the office - count the number of rooms you can enter and still hear your music).

Savitas QR departed from all these preconditions to build a simple, understandable and robust solution within it. It is already working in the first companies to combat the lockdown:

  • It is not an app but a simple anonymous website without any registration, which is privacy-first built: the GDPR audit has been done and the formal DPIA (Data Protection Impact Assessment) is ready.
  • Works by scanning QR codes: a robust, industrially proven technology that is already built into every phone and that everyone can use (cf. Payconiq).
  • People always judge for themselves what kind of contact - high or low risk - they have, according to Sciensano's guidelines.
  • Scanning a QR code several times a day is a voluntary social innovation - just like social distance - with just enough technology underneath to make it practical: the scanning creates a "logbook" on the phone itself like we all have to keep now, but completely anonymous. Seamless integration with the manual contact tracing call centers can be operational in less than a week.

If we want to successfully prevent a second lockdown and thus safeguard the economy from a disaster scenario, we have to start with the companies, not tomorrow but today. And that is best done on the basis of common sense and human judgement: there simply is no app for that.

Paul Carpentier, Savitas QR
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