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Making use of technology to trace Covid-19 cases

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Aarogya Setu App.

Mains level : Paper 3- Using technology for tackling the Covid-19.

The article argues for the greater adoption of technology in tracing the Covid-19. Taking a cue from the success of JAM and UPI, recently launched app Aarogya Setu could also be the next game-changer in the fight against the pandemic. However, there are several challenges that are also discussed here.

Success story of domestic digital platforms

  • The success of two domestic digital payment platforms offers us an opportunity to show how the tracing of COVID-19 cases can be done at scale and with greater speed.
  • The JAM (Jan Dhan-Aadhaar-Mobile) trinity for DBTs (Direct Benefit Transfers) and UPI (Unified Payments Interface) have made India a technology leader in money transfers.
  • The JAM has lent efficiency to the transfer of funds to the needy.
  • It was drafted into action recently to channel payments to the more vulnerable who need help in dealing with the adverse economic consequences of the lockdown.
  • The UPI is emerging as a transaction vehicle of choice for all retail payments.
  • In March, 148 banks were on the UPI platform, helping process over 120 crore transactions worth over Rs 2 lakh crore.

The success story of the UPI and JAM is important from the UPSC point of view. Riding on the success of these two, the Aarogya Setu could also become the third and help in the fight against the epidemic. So, we should be aware of the basics of its working and problems the app could face.

How the Aarogya Setu works?

  • Widespread adoption is required: The success of India’s Aarogya Setu mobile application will depend on its widespread adoption.
  • Based on bluetooth technology: The app relies on bluetooth technology to map and deconstruct the contact history of individuals who may have come in contact with potential carriers of the coronavirus.
  • Exchange of information between apps: If two individuals are at the same place at the same time, their apps can exchange information-up to a maximum distance of about 15 feet.
  • Exchange of the above information is without the server knowing anything about it.
  • The app notifies users and authorities of individuals who are at risk.
  • Privacy safeguards: Some privacy safeguards have been put in place to ensure that individuals do not share personally identifiable information with each other but only with authorities — that too, in select cases.
  • A confidence-building measure would be to release the code for public scrutiny with the aim of further bolstering privacy standards.

What are the possible challenges in the success of Aarogya Setu?

  • The distribution of the detection framework necessitates a rethink, beyond an app.
  • Issues with app download in India: Nandan Nilekani has underlined that app downloads in India are perhaps the most expensive compared to any other developed or fast-developing nation.
  • Despite the falling cost of data, Indian users consider several factors before downloading an app such as required storage space, the potential impact on battery and data usage.
  • Given India’s open internet, several publishers from across industries and geographies are vying for smartphone real estate.
  • Challenge involved: In such a situation, drawing attention to particular use-cases i.e. Aarogya Setu-howsoever urgent-is challenging.

Following are the suggestions to overcome the shortcoming of the Aarogya Setu. Though they are for Aarogya Setu, we can apply these in other situations in which mobile technology bases app is used by the government in the larger public interest such as rescue operation or warnings in case of disaster.

So, what could be the alternate strategy?

  • The alternative strategy involves using the reach of the other famous apps (for ex. Paytm) to do what we want to do i.e. tracing by delinking.
  • Delinking involves separating the technology we want to use for tracing (the backend) from the channels (the front end).
  • A fine-tuned backend can be pushed to, and used by, publishers (other apps) who already have the reach.
  • Similarity with UPI: This is akin to the UPI being used by several banks and technology firms for payment.
  • The government did build its frontend in the form of the BHIM (Bharat Interface for Money) app but mostly for signalling purposes.
  • In the current context, the government can consider using its own app for tracing and for additional use-cases such as passes and approvals for movement when the lockdown is gradually eased out.
  • It could even host other health-related features.
  • Expanding its ambit and making it a conduit like JAM will likely increase the incentive for people to embrace it.

Limitations of using GPS and Bluetooth for tracing in India

  • Another area where improvisations are called for is the tooling for tracking.
  • While reports have indicated that the developers are using bluetooth for tracing and are also capturing GPS coordinates, both users and device manufacturers limit their usage of these technologies in favour of other optimisations.
  • Users are concerned with both data and battery usage while device manufacturers kill background jobs even if the publishers have sought and secured permissions from users.
  • These tendencies are pronounced on Android, the dominant mobile operating system in India.
  • What are the other options? In such a scenario, developers ought to think about using other techniques.
  • For instance, using cell tower data and WiFi identifiers to bolster tracing efforts.
  • This is especially important in a context where only a third of our population has smartphones and even fewer people have devices with bluetooth capability.
  • Even the recently announced Google-Apple partnership may not have meaningful results in this setting.

Conclusion

With the potential ramifications of COVID-19’s spread in India and across the globe, the nation’s recent history of technological successes and a government committed to agile governance, the pandemic presents an opportunity for the country to show its people and the world how technology is a force of good.

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