Utah opts out of Apple, Google coronavirus tracing API in favor of social media startup

By

healthy.together.1
Healthy Together, but without Apple & Google.
Photo: State of Utah

Utah has gone with a different approach to tracking the spread of the coronavirus, one that focuses on a GPS and Bluetooth solution developed by a small social media startup, according to a report Wednesday from CNBC.

The Healthy Together application — available now through the App Store — is fully opt-in. It has been tested since April across Utah, with some 45,000 people having signed up.

A different strategy

Utah’s application is completely different from the one currently in development by Apple and Google. The Apple and Google API uses a decentralized approach with no direct knowledge of the person involved. The Utah application relies on collating data directly from its users.

With the Healthy Together app, users can receive their COVID-19 testing result. If they test positive, can share their location history and contact history over the past 14 days with a contact tracer.

According to the state’s Healthy Together website, Utah decided against the Google/Apple solution because Bluetooth alone “gives a less accurate picture” than the combination of Bluetooth and GPS location data.

The goal of Healthy Together is to allow public health officials to understand how the disease spreads through the vector of people and places, and both location and bluetooth data are needed to accomplish that.

Bluetooth helps us understand person-to-person transmission, while location/GPS data helps us understand transmission zones — having both of these important data points provides a more effective picture of how COVID-19 spreads. This data helps policy makers make the best possible decisions about how and where we begin to relax and modify restrictions as our community and economy begin to reactivate.

The advantage to the Apple/Google API is background Bluetooth tracking that saves battery life and doesn’t require the app to remain open at all times to work. As a result, Utah’s solution will be under scrutiny for its effectiveness and use by the public.

With the Healthy Together app, Utah takes a different approach to stop the spread of coronavirus.
Utah takes a different approach to stop the spread of coronavirus.
Photo: State of Utah

Social media startup Twenty, which developed the Healthy Together app, said the application helps 1,200 contract tracers make calls to people who tested positive to figure out where they had been and who they had been with in the past 14 days. After the pandemic started, the state of Utah reached out to the company, the founders said. With a staff of about 50 employees, Twenty repurposed its social media-oriented technology for contact tracing in three weeks.

The state of Utah spent $2.75 million on the app and will pay $300,000 per month in maintenance fees, according to public records.