Ethiopian Innovators Use Smartphone Tech to Trace COVID-19 Cases
In its ongoing fight to stem the tide of COVID-19 infections, Ethiopia is combining the time-tested epidemiological effort known as contact tracing with modern mobile phone technology to alert people when they cross paths with someone who has tested positive for the virus.
The Ethiopian Public Health Institute has endorsed the two new mobile phone apps known as Debo and COVID-19 Ethiopia. The new apps aim to tackle one of the most notorious aspects of the infection: People can spread COVID-19 while having no signs of being sick. As a result, the infection can spread much faster than conventional contact tracing can keep up.
With that in mind, Debo uses a Bluetooth “handshake” to communicate with nearby phones, capturing the identity of anyone who comes within 6 feet of the phone’s user as part of the contact-tracing strategy should one of the pair test positive later.
COVID-19 Ethiopia lets citizens report their own infections or alert health authorities to other people showing symptoms.
Ethiopian tech startup Ewenet Communication developed Debo.
“It’s our pleasure to get this opportunity, and it means a lot to a startup company like Ewenet,” General Manager Addis Alemayehu told ADF. “Honesty, kindness and professionalism [are] our central values we live by. That is why on every one of our projects, the public benefit comes first.”
Ewenet also developed a website to inform people about COVID-19 and a call-center management system to answer the public’s questions about the virus through the nation’s 8335 phone number.
With an estimated 14 million smartphone users, Ethiopia has leaned heavily on mobile technology in its campaign to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Mobile phones play jingles reminding people to wash their hands and wear face masks. The mobile phone network carries religious services, letting the faithful worship remotely.
“This is not a disease you fight by ventilators or intensive care units,” Arkebe Oqubay, senior minister and special advisor to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali, told Financial Times. “Ninety percent of the solution is hand-washing and social distancing. The only way we can play and win is if we focus on prevention.”
Critics of contact tracing via smartphone note that the apps frequently gather large amounts of data that could violate a person’s privacy if shared with the government.
“There’s a real fear that this data will end up in the hands of governments,” said Deborah Cameron with Human Rights Watch. “Some of the apps look for people’s location data. They use access to their cellphone records, their call records, even their contacts and in some cases the camera. All that information together can reveal very sensitive insights into people’s lives.”
Similar apps have been developed around the world, including in Singapore, Australia and France, among other countries. According to France 24 television, the success of contact-tracing apps depends on how many people use them. In many cases, they’re most successful when 60% to 80% of the population participates.
Researchers at Oxford University in the United Kingdom found that if about 80% of all smartphone users used a contact-tracing app, that could be enough to bring infection rates under control even if widespread social distancing rules weren’t in place.
It’s also unclear whether the technology is precise enough to know when people are interacting in a way that might spread the virus, according to Science magazine. Researchers are testing how walls and other obstacles affect the strength of the Bluetooth signal.
Without a strict lockdown policy, Ethiopia is depending on apps like Debo and COVID-19 Ethiopia to be an inexpensive way to do epidemiological legwork by tracing those who have tested positive.
“This is very important work for the country in responding to COVID-19,” Biruhtesfa Abere of the Ministry of Health told Voice of America.
Decision-makers are trying to forecast the potential spread of the virus and identify hotspots, Abere said.
“So, they need data,” he said. “They need baseline data.”