Covid-19 trackers in the Republic and North will be able to swap data

10 Jul 2020302 Views

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The source code used to develop the Republic of Ireland’s contact-tracing app will also be used in the Northern Irish version of the app, allowing apps on both sides of the border to exchange information.

Earlier in the week, the HSE’s contact-tracing app was launched in the Republic of Ireland to help track the spread of Covid-19 and potentially help limit the transmission of the virus.

Within 48 hours, the app was downloaded by 1m of the estimated 3.6m people in Ireland who own a smartphone. The app is currently only available to individuals whose smartphones have either iOS 13.5 or Android 6.0 and higher.

In the coming weeks, a similar app is set to launch in Northern Ireland and, according to the HSE, the app will be able to swap information with the Republic’s Covid-19 tracker.

The app that will be launched in the North will be made by Waterford-based Nearform, which is the company behind the Republic of Ireland’s app. The news was confirmed by the HSE’s interim chief information officer Fran Thompson, who said: “We will have interoperability between the two jurisdictions.”

Thompson’s confirmation comes following concerns that residents in border areas of the North and Republic would need two use two separate apps to successfully use the platform.

How it works

Built on the Apple and Google Exposure Notification API, Ireland’s Covid Tracker app identifies when one person comes into close contact with another on a given day based on Bluetooth ‘handshakes’ from their devices.

The handshakes occur when two people spend more than 15 minutes within two metres’ distance of one another. If one person voluntarily logs in the app that they have been diagnosed with Covid-19, anyone who was in close contact with them will be notified anonymously.

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When the app is introduced to Northern Ireland, it will share the same source code as the app that has already been introduced below the border.

Thompson confirmed that both apps will be able to anonymously exchange Bluetooth keys, which will likely make things much more simple.

A delay in the UK

When contact-tracing apps began to look like a viable way to limit the spread of Covid-19, the UK began testing its own centralised app for the NHS. The UK government was reluctant to use the software provided by Apple and Google, stating the it limited the amount of data that could be centrally collected and analysed.

Within weeks, the UK took a U-turn on this decision, after the team behind the NHS contact-tracing app struggled to build an app that worked properly without the support of Apple and Google.

Apple and Google said that their solutions were designed in the interests of privacy, to prevent governments from creating databases with sensitive health and location information, as this could cause particular problems in countries with fewer civil rights.

Concerns were also raised that if the UK developed a centralised app, it would not work in sync with Ireland’s contact-tracing app based on the Apple-Google API.

After the UK opted into Google and Apple’s model, Dr Michael Veale of the Decentralised Privacy-Preserving Proximity (DP-3T) group said that the UK had made a “heavily and unnecessarily delayed move”.

As it stands, the UK has still not released a contact-tracing app. A Welsh government spokesperson recently told the BBC that Wales is considering a “range of options,” including developing the app in Northern Ireland. The Irish source code has also been used in Gibraltar’s Beat Covid Gibraltar app.

Kelly Earley is a journalist with Siliconrepublic.com

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