Contact tracing app developed by Limerick brothers gets European funding

An alternative Irish contact-tracing app which makes no use of bluetooth or GPS location data, and which was previously rejected by the HSE and Enterprise Ireland, has been fully funded by an open source science initiative funded by the European Commission.
Contact tracing app developed by Limerick brothers gets European funding

An alternative Irish contact-tracing app which makes no use of bluetooth or GPS location data, and which was previously rejected by the HSE and Enterprise Ireland, has been fully funded by an open source science initiative funded by the European Commission.

The news means the Tracing Ireland’s Population smartphone app, designed by Limerick data scientist Paul Byrnes and his brother Patrick, will be running almost head-to-head with the HSE’s own CovidTracker Ireland application when both launch in about six weeks’ time.

Mr Byrnes said funding had been secured from the European Open Science Cloud on the condition an external data protection impact assessment (DPIA) be carried out.

The HSE’s app, which has been in development for nearly two months, has received a deal of criticism from data protection experts due to neither its own DPIA, nor the application’s source code, not as yet being published.

The brothers’ application follows a fundamentally different approach to the HSE’s project in that no use is made of automated bluetooth ‘handshakes’ or location data, both of which bring with them attendant privacy complications.

“It works more like a starting point for someone to manage their own contact tracing,” Mr Byrnes said.

The brothers’ app also differs from the HSE’s in that it doesn’t require a certain level of takeup to operate successfully, and would be perhaps more useful in identifying clusters of Covid-19 and enabling region-specific lockdown if necessary, an approach which chief medical officer Tony Holohan recently admitted is “always on the table”.

“We weren’t sure we’d get the funding having been knocked back in Ireland,” Mr Byrnes said.

He said the fact Ireland has chosen to follow the joint, bluetooth-dependent approach of Google and Apple’s ‘exposure notification’ tracing template “doesn’t mean it’s the best”.

“We would be very hesitant on being dependent on any large tech company. We believe that total transparency with the public will be what you need to get traction with the public.

“The HSE’s bluetooth app is entirely dependent on the cohort of people in Ireland with smartphones. Anyone who doesn’t have one is completely ruled out initially. Our approach hopefully represents a happy medium.”

He added that, while turnaround time from referral for a test to the completion of contact tracing has now been reduced to three days in most cases, “we still think that’s too slow”.

“Ours is like manual contact tracing - but it’s more efficient.”

Doubt has been cast in recent weeks over the efficiency of the spate of bluetooth-apps launched by different countries, due to the perceived unreliability of bluetooth itself in terms of gauging the distance between people on a consistent basis.

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