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Containing a global pandemic and transforming public health digitally

by Livia Hirsch

PathCheck Foundation is unleashing the power of open-source software to help contain the pandemic and protect individual freedom and privacy. Dept worked alongside PathCheck to design and build two mobile apps to support a foundational health technology platform that will empower communities around the world to slow the spread of Covid-19.

Supporting PathCheck on its global mission

PathCheck Foundation was founded at MIT with a mission to contain the pandemic caused by Covid-19 and revitalise the global economy. The non-profit organisation envisions a new generation of digital solutions for public health. These solutions would empower individuals to play an active role in healthcare by opting into digital contact tracing while protecting their individual privacy and liberty. Our US team worked alongside PathCheck’s team of experts to help support their global mission of building a foundational public health technology platform and mobile apps that make digital contact tracing, case management, epidemiological information collection and citizen communication easier and faster.

Digital is key to fighting the spread of Covid

In March of 2020, the CDC declared the spread of Covid-19 a global pandemic. It was and continues to be a scary time. Still, there is evidence that supports the capabilities of digital to help fight the spread of Covid. This is why countries such as Singapore, Germany and Ireland launched apps designed to trace the recent contacts of positive Covid cases as early as March. For other countries like the United States, however, concerns over privacy and data collection have made the adoption of similar apps slow. PathCheck aims to solve this privacy issue via open-source software.

Global collaboration on digital solutions to fight Covid-19

PathCheck came to Dept for help in building out its health technology platform. This required building apps that can track the movement of individuals via their phones and send notifications to those who have come near a patient with the virus. PathCheck needed an engineering and product team to come on board quickly, help build out the product strategy and start building and rolling out the product itself. So we quickly brought together Deptsters across product, engineering, design and QA and got to work.

We spent the first few weeks working with PathCheck team members around the world, many of whom were volunteers. This interplay created an interesting dynamic as we worked with both full-time PathCheck employees and volunteers with varying skillsets, time zones, and availability. We partnered with both their engineering and product team to deliver on the immediate needs of the public health authorities deploying the app.

Empowering citizens to make a difference, through UX

On the design side, we explored solutions to broader logistical problems created by Covid. PathCheck wanted to empower citizens and give them a much-needed sense of agency in contributing to public health during the pandemic. This was challenging as we were not only juggling what we considered core features to the product but also how these features would be implemented by different public health authorities around the world.

We also took this time to help the team at PathCheck to establish underlying processes for how to run their own product, design, and engineering organisations. Key parts of the project had to be defined, including the API spec that enabled the web and mobile apps to communicate with each other as well as whipping up a proof of concept for the exposure notification app.

Dual methods of mobile contact tracing, privately

Dept first built an app for digital contact tracing using privacy-preserving GPS data. Then we built a second, separate app for exposure notification using the Google Apple Exposure Notification (GAEN) framework. With GAEN, the app uses Bluetooth to anonymously and securely identify when phones have been near each other and potential Covid-19 exposures have occurred.

The advantage is that these capabilities are entirely optional and privacy-preserving. Individuals can choose whether or not they want to participate. However, these solutions enable communities to work together to slow the spread of Covid-19 and complement other public health strategies such as social distancing, the use of masks and manual contact tracing.

Continuing to support a novel public health platform

The mass adoption of a foundational public health technology platform that includes mobile touchpoints on every smartphone in the world is key to containing the Covid-19 pandemic. Together with PathCheck, we built and designed two apps for digital contact tracing that prioritise the user’s privacy. These applications are now being rolled out in two European countries and four US states & territories.

However, this is just the beginning. We will continue to support the foundation by building out more features to support the full spectrum of digital pandemic response needs. However, flexibility is crucial as our understanding of the virus evolves. Together with PathCheck, we envision a post-exposure notification UX that is easy to deploy, fully configurable per location’s needs, and can even assess a user’s symptoms and direct them towards their nearest test centre if needed. Lastly, we also want to provide public health authorities with a set of data dashboards and visualisations. These would help them to not only track the spread of the virus but to better understand how it’s being spread.


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