COVID-19 & Open Source: a Shared Global Approach to Emergencies

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There is a lot of talk about contact tracing as a great contribution to the blocking of Coronavirus, COVID-19, or SARS-CoV2, citing all its chosen names. The situation is quite fluid and any component — technical, administrative, social — is constantly evolving. We all hope that this approach will be useful for containment, that all the related turmoil will stop in a short time, and that it will happen long before any vaccine arrives.

This article is about how developers can deal with situations of significant global interest. This is a perfect use case when a well-driven, open community can solve a problem that is a real conundrum, especially considering the many constraints of the public sector.

To understand the overall action, it is necessary to give a general picture of how technology chances are taken by current technological solutions, using our smartphones as sensors to collect data.

Contact tracing in the world

The development of contact tracing solutions is being done worldwide, on one app for each country, with often different and non-interoperating rules. The effectiveness is entrusted to an English simulation whose main result, neglected by all the media, is that any percentage of adoption will provide useful data according to the current epidemiological model. If we admit that the internal data of each nation are relevant — but we cannot be sure about this -, the degree of supranational utility of these data will unlikely be very high.

Each government is leveraging contact tracing to add additional social features. Some governments integrate other functions into the app (issuing of medical certificates, unemployment benefit, app adoption bonuses, integration with the digital health service), including the essential confirmation of positive results. By acquiring traceability data, each State effectively becomes a competing OTT (over the top) player of Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and all the others. Therefore, a number of concerns arise about privacy and GDPR, which need to be deep and fast considered before making this app downloadable.

Nonetheless, on April 29 Apple and Google announced the support for a worldwide contact tracing solution. On the same day, the Italian government approved the adoption of its app Immuni.

The Apple and Google API is still not in its final version, but a developer-focused release to be given to public health agencies to implement their solution.

Centralized and decentralized data

In order to trace the spreading of the virus, worldwide entities need to collect data from your smartphones. Technically, the app should be only one of the possible provisional front-ends, since gradually the mobile opsys should evolve to solve all technological problems. For example, almost 100% of all smartphones are today installing one of two operating systems, Android and iOS. Due to President Trump’s ban, Huawei’s devices should soon install a Chinese-managed fork of Android. Apple and Google have agreed on a common strategy to overcome the inconveniences that each operating system posed; Huawei is working to remain compatible with the entire range of products.

Basic, specific, and functional technological choices are still on the move around the world. For data, most will follow the decentralized DP3T model, while some (France, UK) will not follow it. Germany started with a preference for a centralized approach but could make a U-turn towards the DT3P. Contact communication between smartphones is entrusted to the BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) relative position tracking system, thus avoiding the absolute position tracking given from the GPS system.

Open source or not? The Italian Immuni app

Google Play and Apple Store authorize only one app per government. The Italian government did not develop this piece of software internally, deciding to entrust the development by Bending Spoons, whose app Immuni is going through several stages before. The provisional release date for the first version is not decided yet, but it should become downloadable in May 2020, and a dedicated website is already active.

The management of such a crisis seems ideal for the developer approach: worldwide, open-source and well documented, large exchanges for continuous improvement, completely public protocols and databases, attention to both regulatory and substantial privacy in all points in the data lifecycle.

Work in progress: Protetti, the (open source) app

For demonstration purposes only, a group of Italian developers developed an app according to community processes and principles. The chosen name of the app is Protetti (meaning “protected”). It all started with Michele Sciabarrà, a software project manager with deep expertise in cloud and serverless computing. He posted the idea and immediately captured the interest of dozens of enthusiasts. We spoke with him while building the NoiApp community.

What is it about? And what about open source?

Protetti is the Italian version of DP-3T, the decentralized app made by Switzerland and Austria. It will be launched on 11 May in Switzerland. The app is open-source, and its code is available on Github and release with an MPL license, which allows the change of the brand but no tweaks to the code. In making Protetti, the members of the NoiApp group have translated and adapted it a bit. Most work has been done on deployment and testing.

Is Bluetooth Low Energy a good way to measure distance?

There are some interesting points on current consumption. The accuracy with which BLE signatures can be converted to useful proxies of transmission risks is currently uncertain. Our community is working on this with a little investment (note: we write about this later in this article).

What infrastructure does it have underneath?

All the attention is driven by the app, while most part of the work, and of the importance of contact-tracing solutions, is in servers. The recent launch of the Italian region for the Amazon Cloud services will be beneficial for many business cases, including Protetti’s class of solutions.

The server is a spring-boot application written to accept notifications and write them on a database. This is not a bandwidth-consuming application: 99% of requests are in writing, so it can be implemented starting with a simple CDN connection.

The NoiApp team’s philosophy

Sciabarrà found Immuni’s closed approach unresponsive to today’s world. He made a post asking if anyone wanted to make an open version and received 200 OKs, in fact making an entire new community. Today, Sciabarrà is its frontman.

Despite some online discussions, even by Sciabarrà himself, the Protetti group is not in controversy with Immuni nor with Bending Spoons. Immuni responds to commercial logic and started developing with an opaque process that became clearer in time. However, the NoiApp community thinks that the whole process should be open, not only in terms of (open source) code, but also regarding protocols and databases.

Among other things, someone pointed out why blockchain is not used for data, and Sciabarrà has joined this flow: “data are anonymized at the source, so using the blockchain instead of just HTTPS makes no sense”. It would be an unnecessary complication.

Helping the global community: the case for BLE

Apart from its local goals, each local community takes part in the job that can be helpful to the global community. The first task is to provide a local translation of the app. A more complex task is to answer this question: how much affordable is BLE? The official communications related to all contact tracing apps that are going to be released all around the world let the users think that a compatible BLE electronic is onboard all smartphones, giving affordable measure of the distance between devices. Well, the reality is completely different and there is a different behavior of the BLE information depending on its usability, measures, and even charge consumption.

The NoiApp community is then investing money to test code for the Protetti app. It will define each device’s behavior, producing a list that will be useful to all other app publishers in the world. This expertise would be beneficial to any other developing group with similar goals.

Answering to global challenges is a great spring in the developers’ behavior. It is this same spring that brought Apple and Google to make parallel developments that can harmonize a worldwide diffusion of the contact-tracing apps.

Limits of the projection

All tracing apps are built upon a single datum: having 60% of contact data could make the difference in the spreading of the Coronavirus. The effectiveness of contact tracing has been simulated on a British study, simulating various scenarios with a starting point in a pre-COVID-19 era -and all applications, as of today, are not. The reference data for smartphone usage are given by the Ofcom Department, in a nation whose average use of cellphones is well over 70%. The projections, made on a single theoretical city of 1 million inhabitants with smartphone distribution as in the British territory, where there is the greatest worldwide penetration. The model also needs the total lockdown for the over 70s. Smartphone penetration is lower in Italy if compared with UK, and with a larger percentage of over 70s. “Having a 60% diffusion of the app everywhere in a country”, explains Michele; “we can also have a spotty distribution, where some areas reach the desired 60% and most don’t, and the data will be relevant”.

Moreover, also a penetration limited to 20–25% appears to bring in the analysis interesting data for any approach.

Often this data is integrated with other information relating to apps developed in technologically advanced Asian nations such as South Korea and little Singapore. The real penetration of the app, although it started before the pandemic progressed, remained small and gave very limited help to the decisions taken by the legislator.

Looking at global actions, a deeper reflection must be made. This terrible situation could be of greatest value to store useful data for any future needs. We are currently using the 1930 model for the pandemic, although it was developed just after the Spanish influence (1920). This is old stuff. Very old.

Will the data collected this way, and all related experiences, be useful to us and our children?

You can read the orginal version of this article at, where you will find more related contents.




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