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Singapore – Leading the way in track and trace

In Singapore, the authorities are following a very tech-led approach to dealing with the spread of coronavirus. Although, as with so many high technologically based tracking apps; this application is not without its critics.

The device they are using is called Trace Together, and the capabilities of this app are rather impressive. In addition to having a long-lasting battery. The user has to carry the device on their person and simply wait for it to alert the authorities should the wearer come into contact with an infected person.

However, useful this type of device may be, it is understood that devices such as this can only be truly effective in combatting the spread of COVID-19 when used in tandem with other public health tools.

Worldbeating track and trace

The initial rollout of the devices was to the older generation; those who might not necessarily have access to the latest android/apple smartphone and therefore, may prove harder to trace. The initial set up involves the person providing a contactable number and their national identity details. Those who have a smartphone can use the Trace Together application, and they also had to give this information.

The device is physically similar to a phone dongle. If the wearer tests positive for COVID-19, they have to then take the device to the Health Ministry as the dongle, unlike the smart app, cannot upload the information directly onto the tracing data.

Once the information has been received at the health ministry, a team of contact tracers can collate the information taken from the infected person’s device and get in touch with any contacts that need to be notified and told to isolate or seek medical treatment.

The application has been scrutinised by an international team of experts who have thoroughly tested its capabilities. These specialists had access to all the parts of the new device. This team of observers were highly impressed with the simplicity of the device design. The dongle did what was required, without the expense and cumbersome unnecessary functionality.

It merely gathers the wearer’s movements and interactions during their day. Thus, they allowed the authorities to keep on top of a fast-moving situation such as a new COVID-19 outbreak. The hopes for this device have not been unwarranted, as Singapore has proved to have had one of the world’s most effective strategies for countering COVID-19.

Best practice – great tech and proactive government policy

The Singapore authorities have been very proactive in getting a device, that can effectively track and trace, from the design stage to widespread use. They have widely publicised its benefits and capabilities. As a result of this information campaign, take up, and public acceptance of the device has been high. It is not needed to be made compulsory, except among migrant workers who have suffered the worst infection rates – in part due to their unfortunate reliance on communal housing. Due to the device’s adoption, those infected have been isolated much faster than would otherwise have happened.

The limitations of smartphones

Although effective, Trace Together, has not been without its teething problems. In the main, these relate to the amount of power required to run the app on smartphones. This has led to some people removing the app because of its drain on power consumptions.

Apple users of the phone app have had issues surrounding their inability to use other Bluetooth applications while the app is running. The battery life is also shortened when using the app, and a dongle may well be needed for Apple users if they are to continue using their phones problem-free.

There are some privacy issues raised by the use of these dongles and the retention of data. Civil libertarians question whether the government could use that information to monitor the movement of people.

In response, the government official in charge of the track and trace operation points to the very high levels of public confidence in the government’s aims. The Singapore authorities also, point to the use of data protection laws in Singapore to defend the government from criticisms.

Acceptance and targeted resources

Using Trace Together, the government of Singapore will highlight the relatively low rates of infection on the island. Besides, the speed at which its scientific community can react to this handy data in tracking new outbreaks of the disease, this, in turn, leads to resources being deployed in a targeted way to stop infections spreading rapidly.

The use of Trace Together has provided some guidance to the limits of the use of mobile phones, and the highlighted the need, in unusual times such as these, for specifically designed, battery-driven hardware. This hardware can bridge the gap between the needs of public health officials and the existing capabilities and battery-life of current smartphone devices.

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