Computer Science Professor at UL conducts research into Covid-19 tracking app

Doctor Jim Buckley, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Limerick has said that vaccine passports apps could help slowly reopen parts of society.

In his personal opinion vaccine passports have the potential to help prevent covid-19 transmission across our population as it updates a user’s vaccine and PCR test status and thus helps identify who is less likely to catch/transmit the virus in common spaces such as public transport and shops.

“There is potential for a vaccination application which verifies the user’s vaccination status, however, this is just my view and it remains to be seen whether the government introduces vaccine passports in Ireland.”

“Maybe if there is a vaccine passport app, there will be an additional tab which highlights your last negative PCR test. For example, such an application would possibly be used to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative PCR test,” he explained.

“The possible benefits might be to enhance and strengthen the reopening of business, schools and workplaces, in line with the latest Public Health advice.”

Dr. Buckley estimates that a Covid-19 Day Pass Portal for UL students to attend on-campus facilities could help lower the spread of Covid-19 in smaller settings but is not without challenges.

“The possibility of a Covid-19 Day Pass Portal for UL may lower the spread as well as retrospectively indicating whether a student has come in contact with someone who has tested positive with Covid-19.”

“However, the day pass solution needs to be granular in the location information it captures: if I am on just on campus and I start getting close contact alerts each time someone else who is also ‘just on campus’ at the same time gets tested as positive, I could start ignoring them because those close contacts may be at a huge distance and not be considered close contacts. It does depend on how this day pass is going to be carefully leveraged,” he outlined.

Dr. Buckley led an SFI-funded Covid-19 Rapid-Response project carried out by Lero across UL, NUIG and University Hospital Galway. The purpose of this Covigilant project to evaluate the Irish public’s attitude to Ireland’s Covid-19 tracking app.

This research has found a significant willingness from the public to download a contact-tracing app.

The Covid Tracker Ireland app is likely the most familiar contact tracing app with the Irish public and his team have been seeking out the public’s opinion on different aspects of the app.

Research surrounding the Covid-19 tracker app

A total of 8,088 responses were recorded after a week-long call for participants, beginning on 22 May, across social media platforms, University emailing lists and mainstream media channels.

The main findings of the Covigilant study were as follows:

  • 82% of participants were supportive of the app and intended to download it.
  • 98% stated that they understood the concept of contact tracing and 98% responded that informing the HSE of your close contacts is important if you develop COVID-19.
  • In terms of privacy, 41% said they were worried technology companies would “use this as an excuse for greater surveillance”, 33% said they were worried governments would do the same and 22% feared downloading such an app would make them vulnerable to hackers.

“It is hugely important to evaluate the app from the user’s perspective and our findings showed that the majority of people were positive in terms of using a contact tracing app to help their community.”

“But like almost all surveys, it’s a bit flawed, for example, previous studies had shown that when the app had come out in other countries only about a third of the people who intended to download the app did. Likewise, we got about 34%, downloading the app, so that’s good (slightly more than a third). Also, we didn’t have  the elderly respond to the survey because they weren’t able to do an internet survey (because of limited IT literacy), so there was some sample bias we have to acknowledge.”

The COVID Tracker app has been developed by the public service using technology provided via Apple and Google to utilise Bluetooth low energy (LE) to tell if you have spent 15 minutes near someone who tested positive for the virus.

“This (Google and Apple Exposure Notification Service) aims at minimising the data that we have on positive cases and is a vital consideration because of GDPR and data protection.”

“If I meet someone and we’re two metres apart for less than 15 minutes, based on Bluetooth, I get the anonymous ID details that won’t tie to them, except on their phone. And say, for example, five days later that contact gets a positive diagnosis.”

The anonymous random ID information of that positive case is collected, only with the user’s consent, and shared to a central server. Other users can then be notified discreetly if they have been near a positive case,” he explained.

Although the Covid-19 tracker app isn’t without its limitations, such as a short-lived issue with the app draining phone batteries, Dr Buckley noted “there are really interesting insights to be found around the Covigiliant study and with these findings, we can help more people, more families and more communities to look after their health during Covid-19 be evolving a best-practice national Contact Tracker app for Covid-19.”

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