Only about 6,250 Covid-19 positive cases — or one in six of the total 37,000-odd cases — are on the Aarogya Setu application that has 83.5 million users so far. On Friday, the Home Ministry mandated employers to ensure all their staff download the Aarogya Setu application.
The government’s flagship Covid-19 mobile application is designed to trace all the people a positive case would have come in contact with 14 days before case detection. However, this contact tracing mechanism is mostly reliant on positive cases having downloaded the application before they tested positive.
A component of the application’s effectiveness is its widespread usage – hotspot predictions and contact tracing require a critical mass of the population to be on the app.
Data accessed by The Sunday Express from the app shows that 24 districts with major clusters, which account for at least half of the cases across the country, have 15 million downloads or 18 per cent of the total user base. With a population of roughly 88 million in these districts, as per Census 2011 data, this user base is 17 per cent of the population in these zones.
The highest user base is in Delhi (4 million users), Pune (1.5 million), Mumbai suburban and Mumbai (2 million), and Thane (1.4 million). The data showed that 62 districts in the red zone had 25 million downloads.
Hurdles to Govt plan
The Home Ministry order Friday for employers to ensure all their staff download Aarogya Setu app signalled its dependence on the app for its Covid plan. But there are early hurdles, among them that many may not have smartphones.
The data further shows that three million people who have downloaded the app on their phones show some Covid symptoms. Follow-up phone calls with these users show that roughly one per cent of them (30,000) need a closer examination from a doctor. Roughly 3,000 users need some form of medical care or testing.
Saying there is still “a long way to go” considering that only one in six Covid positive cases have the app on their phones, app developer Lalitesh Katragadda said the next goal is to reach another 200 million users, as the developers believe they may have saturated the “elite” mobile user base.
IT Ministry officials and industry developers of the Aarogya Setu app admitted that the Home Ministry’s fresh direction will be hobbled by the fact that not all employees have smartphones.
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“The instructions will of course only apply to those with smartphones,” said a top IT Ministry official who helped with the app’s development. “Clarifications from MHA could be there, but as for the IT Ministry, we are working out a technological solution for non-smartphone users. The spirit behind the order should be looked at. As long as they have a smartphone, they should have the app. The law should be read like that.”
When asked if employers would be held responsible if employees without smartphones can’t download the application, a Home Ministry spokesperson said, “The directives are clear.”
The IT Ministry official said, “Ultimately, it’s the employers who should be concerned about the safety and health of their companies. In fact, this was a request from various companies, industry associations, and empowered groups – that the app could be used as a mechanism to open up the economy.”
While India’s mobile subscription numbers at 1.5 billion and Internet user base at 500 million is second only to China, the country’s subscription penetration levels, at 85 per cent, is 24 percentage points below the world average.
According to a Nokia report, there are 530 million 3G and 335 million 4G smartphone devices in India as of 2018. One of the Aarogya Setu developers told The Sunday Express that the application should be able to work on 2G phones, but it has not been tested.
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As of December 2018, the country’s metros account for 116 million mobile subscribers. Delhi has 51 million mobile subscribers, Mumbai 38 million, and Kolkata 27 million, according to the Cellular Operators Association of India.
At the beginning of April, IIT Madras Professor V Kamakoti began a pilot of an interactive voice recognition software (IVRS) system that would allow Aarogya Setu to operate on basic phones and conduct a health assessment. However, the technology has still not been implemented in full force.
Katragadda said Reliance Jio has also started working on building an Aarogya Setu app for 115 million Jio phones that are “smart feature phones” designed for first-generation users.
Over the past couple of weeks, technological minds behind the app have begun trying to assess the accuracy of its risk assessments.
“In areas where usage is high, we are able to predict with some degree of confidence where hotspots might emerge before they emerge,” a developer told The Sunday Express. “Currently in the ICMR testing, for every 28 tested, roughly one comes out positive. We are getting a much higher rate when we check the users deemed high-risk by the platform.”
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