In almost a month since it launched, the Northern Irish contact-tracing app StopCovid NI has been downloaded more than 300,000 times, according to the Department of Health.
The number of downloads is expected to keep increasing as the app becomes available to children and young people under 18 years old from September, to coincide with the re-opening of schools, colleges and universities.
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StopCovid NI was previously intended for over-18s only because of incompatible data protection laws. The health services have worked around the clash and now identified a way that younger people can get consent to use the tool without impacting anonymity.
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Northern Ireland’s minister of health Robin Swann said: “Passing the 300,000 mark is a great achievement in a short space of time but we have to maintain the momentum. The more people get on board, the more effective the app will be in breaking chains of transmission of the virus.”
The technology is now covering over 15% of the region’s residents. According to data scientist Peter Donaghy, this makes StopCovid NI the tenth most “up-taken” app worldwide where installation is voluntary, relative to the size of the targeted population.
Northern Ireland is trailing just behind Germany, where about 17% of the population has downloaded the Corona-Warn app.
The UK region launched the StopCovid NI contact-tracing app at the end of July, tapping Bluetooth signals to anonymously alert smartphone users if they have been in close contact with someone who has since tested positive for COVID-19.
The technology uses an API developed by Apple and Google that was released earlier this year to help health agencies design contact-tracing tools that are decentralized and privacy-friendly.
To date, 160 people who have tested positive to COVID-19 have shared their results with the app, which has in turn triggered an alert to 237 other users advising them to self-isolate.
To develop the app, the Northern Irish health services worked with software company NearForm, which had already released a similar tool – also based on Google and Apple’s API – in the neighbouring Republic of Ireland. Both StopCovid NI and its Irish counterpart Covid Tracker use the same software, but they have different platforms and capabilities.
Crucially, the Republic of Ireland’s app and the Northern Irish app are interoperable, meaning that users on one side of the border can still trigger warnings for those on the other side.
The Department of Health (Northern Ireland) confirmed that all 160 positive results anonymously registered in the app so far had effectively been passed over to health authorities in the Republic of Ireland. In return, Northern Ireland received 1,042 diagnosis keys from its neighbour.
Northern Ireland is the first and only region in the UK to have launched a full-scale contact-tracing app. Scotland is working on its own technology, but doesn’t expect an app to be available to download before the autumn.
The country’s health services have confirmed that the Scottish app will be using the same software as StopCovid NI and Covid Tracker, meaning the technologies will also be interoperable.
In England, the development of a contact-tracing app had a rocky start: the UK government initially snubbed Google and Apple’s API and attempted to create a centralized app on its own, before ditching the plan when technical limitations became apparent.
A new version of the English app, this time based on technology from Apple and Google, has now entered trials on the Isle of Wight and in the east London borough of Newham. The Northern Irish Department of Health said that it was providing “regular updates” to colleagues across the UK regarding the development of the StopCovid NI app.
Meanwhile, the region’s health services are strongly encouraging Northern Irish residents to keep downloading the app as the epidemic starts gathering pace again in the region. Latest estimates show that the virus’s reproduction number sits around 1.3, with over 350 new positive tests in the past week.
Despite the encouraging growth of the app’s user base, it’s still hard to tell how effective the contact-tracing app really is. In France, for example, a similar technology dubbed StopCovid was launched at the start of June, with limited effects.
A much smaller proportion of the French population has taken up the app (under 5%) and only 72 notifications have been issued since the release of the tool. The French prime minister Jean Castex recently acknowledged that StopCovid had not had the expected results, and that the technology was not a major tool in the fight against COVID-19.
Castex added that the French government was not the only one to have reached a similar conclusion about contact-tracing apps. In Singapore, for example, where the TraceTogether app has been taken up by over a third of the population, even the technology’s developer has warned that “automated contact-tracing is not a coronavirus panacea“.
Dan West, chief digital information officer at the Northern Ireland Department of Health, said: “We are continuing to work to improve the app, and have been receiving helpful feedback from users. We released an updated version of the app last week, reflecting the feedback, and correcting all minor issues reported by users. We will continue to respond to the public’s feedback, and very much welcome it.”
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