With 2.1 crore downloads, the Aarogya Setu mobile app — to track and alert those who physically come close to COVID-19 cases — is being aggressively promoted by the government at the highest level because its effectiveness depends on at least half the population registering as users, according to its developers and experts. COVID-19 LIVE updates
On Tuesday evening, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Ministers, including Amit Shah, Ravi Shankar Prasad and Piyush Goyal, were part of a high-level group that attended a presentation by the app’s developers.
Since then, the Prime Minister and Union Ministers have tweeted about the app. The HRD and Rail Ministries have sent out advisories urging students, teachers and employees, and their family members, to download it. And banks are sending alerts to account-holders.
The app, which is owned by the government and supported by the National Informatics Centre (NIC), was developed by a joint team of official entities such as NITI Aayog and tech industry volunteers, who also help manage it. The first line of code was written by March 19, and the app launched on April 2 after a security audit conducted by IIT-Madras and a tech consulting firm.
“One reason behind Aarogya Setu is that if the outbreak gets worse, this is an early way of becoming ready. Unless a large number of people download the app, the effectiveness is limited,” said Indihood founder Lalitesh Katragadda, who is among about 20 volunteers behind the app’s development.
“This works better if all of us are on it. That’s why we are pushing to have it on every smartphone in the country,” said NITI Aayog’s Programme Director Arnab Kumar, who has led much of the app’s development.
IIT-Madras Professor V Kamakoti estimated that “at least 50 per cent of the population needs to register to make the app effective”.
One key feature is self-assessment, which includes questions about age, profession (delivery service, healthcare worker etc), international travel history, contact with cases, potential symptoms, and pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and lung disease.
Once the information is provided, the app responds with a risk assessment. For instance, when this reporter registered with the app, the response was: “Your infection risk is low. We recommend that you stay at home to avoid any chance of exposure to the novel coronavirus.”
The app also tracks users’ movement by collecting GPS coordinates every half-an-hour as well as continuous Bluetooth data about other users in the vicinity, according to Katragadda, who is a former Google India executive.
According to him, the data about location and physical contacts remains on users’ devices — except under certain circumstances.
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For instance, data is sent to the server at the time of registration, and if the self-assessment process deems users to be “at risk”, or if information obtained from the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) declares them to be positive.
For “at-risk” or positive cases, the user’s 30-day log of previous contacts is downloaded to the server, and an alert is sent to each contact. The “at-risk” decision is taken by an algorithm, but the team plans to add human moderators as another level of verification, Katragadda said.
“If determined to be ‘at risk’, the data is given to health authorities after we ask for a confirmation from the user that this information is accurate. A note is sent to the user that the information will be sent to the Health Ministry. The location is then used to determine where hotspots might develop,” he said.
Health authorities will plan the next course of action, said NITI Aayog’s Kumar.
According to project volunteers, the data is stored on Amazon Web Services servers — a government-empanelled data storage service run by Amazon — as a temporary measure until the transition is made to an NIC server.
The policy states: “The App does not allow your name and number to be disclosed to the public at large at any time.”
If users and their contacts are not tested positive, and not flagged by ICMR, the location data is deleted from the app after 30 days. However, it doesn’t specify when the data will be deleted from servers.
Asked about the non-availability of location history of those who are positive before registration, volunteers agreed that contact-tracing history would be less effective in such cases.
To help with this, they said, the systems are integrated with data from other entities, such as the ICMR, National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), to help determine physical contact history.
According to Kumar, manually collected contact-tracing data about positive and quarantined cases from the NCDC and the ICMR is fed into the app through a real-time Application Programming Interface (API), which is a highway between two programmes.
Katragadda said the NDMA “takes the positive cases and understands where they have been using their phone data”, even though cell tower data is not very accurate. Professor Kamakoti, however, said that the app “doesn’t know where you have been before you installed it”.
“This is a system problem. There is no one solution. We have to take feature phones. We have to take smartphones. We have to take Aarogya Setu users. We have to take non-users. We have to make sure everyone is covered one way or the other,” Katragadda said.
Volunteers said that a feature phone version, along with an IVRS (Interactive Voice Response System), is expected to be released soon.
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