The Linux Foundation wants to help combat COVID-19 with free, open source apps to tell people when they've been exposed to the virus

The Linux Foundation wants to help combat COVID-19 with free, open source apps to tell people when they've been exposed to the virus
People wearing protective face masks use a smartphone on a street in KievReuters
  • Linux Foundation launched a public health unit in July to use open source software to combat the coronavirus pandemic and future epidemics.
  • The foundation now has two apps: COVID Green, which is built by NearForm developers in Ireland, and COVID Shield, which is built by Shopify developers in Canada.
  • Currently, contact tracing apps are not widely used, but the general manager of the initiative is optimistic that adoption will improve thanks to this tech.

The Linux Foundation has formed a new group to provide public health authorities with free technology for tracking the spread of the coronavirus and future epidemics.

Linux Foundation Public Health, launched in July to focus on using open source software to respond to the pandemic, has so far hosts two apps that notify users if they've been in contact with someone who has tested positive with COVID-19. A volunteer team of over 40 developers at Shopify in Canada built one, called COVID Shield, while a team at Irish enterprise software developer NearForm built another, called COVID Green. Both codebases were then contributed to Linux Foundation Public Health.

Since these apps are open source, people can contribute code and customize them, allowing regions with similar needs to collaborate, general manager at Linux Foundation Public Health, Dan Kohn, told Business Insider. Developers that want to build an app off these projects can access or download the source code.
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These apps take advantage of technology launched by Apple and Google , which can be integrated into any app, that uses Bluetooth on people's smartphones to track who a user has been in close proximity with, without identifying the specific people. If anyone tests positive for COVID-19 and uploads that information to a database run by a local public health authority, any user who has been in close contact with that person will get a notification through their app saying they may have been exposed – again, without identifying who has COVID-19. If someone knows that they may have been exposed, they can either self-quarantine or get tested.

"Essentially we think exposure notification could have a big impact on reducing the overall rate of exposure," Kohn said.

An Oxford University study in April said that if about 60% of the population used a contact tracing app, it could grind the diseases spread to a halt. Researchers on the team also found that digital contact tracing can cut down spread even at much lower levels of usage. Another recent study from Oxford that focused on Washington state found that if 15% of the population participates in using exposure notification, it could reduce infections and deaths by approximately 8% and 6%, although this study has not yet been peer-reviewed.
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At this point, exposure notification apps have not been widely used in the US, but Kohn believes that the initiative from Linux Foundation Public Health could help with adoption because being open source makes them free and flexible for developers and public health authorities to work with.

"It's definitely been an issue that states have been quite slow in rolling out those apps," Kohn said. "I'm optimistic for speeding that up." Read more: Companies are looking to hire open source talent — particularly with DevOps skills — but they're having a hard time finding qualified candidates, according to a new survey
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While Apple and Google say their technology focuses on preserving privacy by allowing users to turn it on and off at any time, randomizing Bluetooth identifiers, and ensuring that people who test positive are not identified by the system, trust and privacy concerns could be one of the reasons for sluggish adoption of exposure notification apps so far. Also, this technology can only be integrated into an app developed by a public health authority. Kohn says there's "constant discussion going on" in the projects about Bluetooth interference and how to bolster privacy.

Public health authorities in Ireland, Canada, and 12 US states are using source code hosted by the Linux Foundation Public Health in their applications today, though they are not mandated by state governments. Still, Colorado had 10% adoption with the first week of launching, the foundation says.

While these apps are for exposure notification — meaning that people can get notified if they may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 — the foundation also plans to build apps that further help with contact tracing, providing information about getting tested, and later on, information on vaccinations.
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