State Tech, Health Agencies Working With UC on Apple-Google COVID App

The California departments of Public Health (CDPH) and Technology (CDT) are working with two University of California campuses to pilot a COVID-19 exposure notification app recently released by Apple and Google. The pilot's success will be a determiner on whether the state makes the technology "available to all people statewide," CDT Director and state Chief Information Officer Amy Tong said in a statement, noting residents would still have to opt in.

This story is limited to Techwire Insider members.
This story is limited to Techwire Insider members. Login below to read this story or learn about membership.
After working together earlier this month with the private sector to stand up a COVID-19 data reporting solution, two linchpin state agencies are teaming again — this time with a state university system and two tech pioneers on pilots of virus notification.

The California departments of Public Health (CDPH) and Technology (CDT) are partnering with University of California campuses in San Diego and San Francisco to deploy two pilot projects, testing the Exposure Notification Express free mobile app recently released by Apple and Google. “Use of the app may allow those who were exposed to be alerted more quickly, as well as being able to alert strangers who may not be identified using traditional contact tracing methods,” CDPH said in a news release. Apple announced in April that the two companies would work together on COVID contact tracing tech. Apple’s iOS 13.7 system update lets users opt-in to “COVID-19 Exposure Notifications” without downloading an app; Google is offering it as an app for Android.

“Collaboration in the age of COVID-19 has been a critical factor for success,” state Chief Information Officer and CDT Director Amy Tong told Techwire via email. “The exposure notification pilot is a good example of how government, education and private sector partners are working together to deliver new tools to slow the spread of the virus.” Here are takeaways on the endeavor:

• The mobile app, aimed at slowing the pandemic’s spread, will be made available to UC students and employees at the two campuses “this fall,” CDPH said Friday. In an email, CDT spokesman Bob Andosca described the initiative as “a single pilot” with two UC locations. The department, he said, has been “investigating the development of exposure notification technologies for several months” and has received many ideas through its Technology Solutions Group portal. CDT focused on solutions “with a privacy-centric design that did not collect any personal information or use location data to track individuals,” Andosca said via email. The Google Apple Exposure Notification API “emerged early as a leading design,” and by adopting it, CDT did not have to develop it or contract with a developer.

“We are working to configure the app with the messages and a risk model based on direction from CDPH and leading epidemiologists at the participating universities,” Andosca said. Tong said in a statement the pilots are expected to launch “in the later part of September and last approximately one month,” adding: “After reviewing the results of the pilot projects, the state will consider making the technology available to all people statewide, but consumers would still need to proactively opt-in to use the app.” Epidemiologists will look at results and research being done in other jurisdictions, Andosca said, to determine the tool’s effectiveness at mitigating the virus’s spread.

• Asked whether vendors should stay tuned for other similar opportunities, Andosca said: “Given the scope of the COVID-19 pandemic and the state’s response, it is reasonable to believe that opportunities will continue to become available.” The Exposure Notification Express “functionality” is provided free to the state by Apple and Google, he said; implementation and operating costs will come from the operating budgets of CDPH and the two university campuses.

• The app, released at the beginning of September, is designed to stop the virus’s spread by “confidentially notifying individuals who may have been exposed to someone who tested positive for the virus,” CDPH said in a news release. It described privacy and security as “central” to the app’s design, which it said “does not collect location data from any device and never shares user identities.” In a statement, Dr. Erica Pan, interim state public health officer, said the pilot’s purpose is for the state, “with local health entities and academic partners,” to study the app’s “efficacy” at further mitigating the spread of COVID-19.

“Use of the app is voluntary and is designed to alert individuals of possible exposure if they have been in close contact with a COVID-19 positive individual. The app does not use any location services and is designed to be completely anonymous,” Pan said.

• The app uses Bluetooth to notify individuals who have been “in close proximity” to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. When voluntarily activated by a user, its Bluetooth detects when two mobile devices “are in the same vicinity” — without revealing identities or locations. App users who test positive for the coronavirus can anonymously share that information to benefit public health — but the app doesn’t “collect, store or transmit any personally identifiable user information.”

Each user’s device collects “anonymous keys” from other app users with whom they have been close during the past 14 days, Andosca said. The app uses these keys plus “Bluetooth attenuation (signal strength), date of the exposure, and date of the symptom onset or test” to determine who gets an exposure notification. The app, he said, collects “basic metrics” on how many exposure notifications have been sent and when — but no information on the people who sent or received those notifications.

• If it’s successful, the opt-in pilot will be the foundation for “voluntary exposure notifications for all Californians” via the app, Dr. Christopher Longhurst, chief information officer at UC San Diego Health, said in a statement. The UC campus pilot locations are each capable of testing people for COVID-19, and have call centers and staff ready to drive the launch with scant assistance from local governments, CDPH said.

Theo Douglas is Assistant Managing Editor of Techwire.