At Future Human 2020, NearForm technical director Colm Harte spoke about what it was like to quickly turn around the Covid Tracker Ireland app.
It has been a rollercoaster ride for NearForm, the developers of Covid Tracker Ireland, since its contact-tracing app went live earlier this year. Soon after its release, more than 1m people had downloaded the app designed to help us track and stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Not long after that, the months of work put into the app by Waterford-based NearForm had a global pay-off, as its source code was chosen as an open-source contact-tracing project by the Linux Foundation Public Health initiative.
Under the project name ‘Covid Green’, the source code of the Irish app is now being made available for other public health authorities and their developers across the world to use and customise. As part of the agreement, NearForm is managing the source code repository on GitHub.
Now, the company can put its name to some of the most high-profile contact-tracing apps in the world, with its source code being used for apps in a number of states in the US – including New York – as well as the apps used by Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Speaking at this year’s inaugural Future Human event, NearForm’s technical director, Colm Harte, revealed how the app initially came about. With the full scale of the Covid-19 pandemic unfolding in Ireland in March, Harte said that NearForm was tasked by the HSE with coming up with a contact-tracing app prototype in just five days.
As modern smartphones are not designed with contact-tracing in mind, the NearForm team had to speak with Google and Apple – the developers of Android and iOS, respectively – to find ways that would allow for a Bluetooth-based tracing app to work, while maintaining user privacy.
“We had everything else in place,” Harte said. “We had the full end-to-end application working. We had the back-end stood up.
“But we had this one fundamental problem. If we can’t get it to reliably work on iOS devices for proximity detection, is it really a solution you can roll out to the general population? And the answer to that really did come back with no, this is just not going to be good enough.”
Apple and Google would eventually release an exposure notification system built into Android and iOS to facilitate contact tracing. This followed a ‘decentralised model’ where anonymised data is stored on a person’s phone alone. However, this meant NearForm had to quickly change its app design from a centralised model, which relies on storing user information and close contacts on a centralised server.
Why the decentralised model?
According to Harte, adopting a decentralised model was a good move for the app, especially when it came to the public understanding how these applications would work. “There had been a lot of concerns in the media around, will this be effective? Will it work? And how is it going to manage my privacy?” he said.
“Is it going to be tracking everything about me? Is it going to know my location? So the combination of Bluetooth and the decentralised approach really helped to answer a lot of those questions.”
With the app’s code being made open source, Harte said that it was important for the tech to face scrutiny over how it handles data and, fundamentally, how it works. Among those to analyse the code were groups from Science Foundation Ireland, the University of Belfast, the University of Pennsylvania, MIT and others.
“I do think one of the reasons that it was so successful was the fact that we had addressed the privacy concerns,” he said. “There was a lot of information put into the public domain about exactly how this application would work.
“That gave people reassurance that they could trust that this application was doing what it should do and that it really is just an additional tool in helping prevent the spread of Covid-19.”