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7 reasons why mobile app-based contact tracing isn’t enough
Covid-19 has truly shaken enterprises! Existing BCP/DR strategies, understandably, have been found wanting due to the unprecedented scale of this pandemic. However, enterprises are built to have resilience and that continues to be demonstrated by how quickly operations are resuming post lockdown. Across our enterprise customer base, we are seeing new SOPs being created for social distance management, thermal scanning, regular area sanitation, knob-less doors and most importantly staff training to help navigate this new normal. These micro-innovations need to be commended because they are helping enterprises deal with Covid despite many constraints. For example, a) the size of the workspace isn’t magically becoming larger to accommodate social distancing norms, b) the methods of working cannot change drastically given installed machinery and other infrastructure and c) individual human social behavior continues to be a highly dynamic variable in a highly dynamic situation.
We believe the single most important element that organizations need to GIRFT (Get It Right the First Time) is having a digital contact trace available for every employee, contract worker and visitor coming in and out of the premise. Here is why. A significant majority of Covid cases are asymptomatic, hence plain thermal scanning isn’t enough. It is important to track back the asymptomatic person via contact trace, in case another employee gets the infection from them and starts showing symptoms. Some of our customers are experimenting with camera vision-based solutions for social distance monitoring. Those solutions require large investments, can provide high level social distancing insights on the shop-floor, but do not have the capability to do any contact tracing whatsoever. Many enterprises are also being proactive and trying to develop their own contact tracing mobile apps using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). Given our experience with BLE apps and Enterprise IOT using BLE in general, I would like to call out some pitfalls which enterprises need to factor in, especially if their entire contact tracing strategy is based on the mobile app:
- No smartphone, no app!
Mobile app (obviously) cannot be used for contact tracing in workplace / shop-floor where smartphones are not allowed because to corporate security or safety hazard reasons
- Floating contract workforce
Mobile app strategy wouldn’t work if a large proportion of employees are contract workers. Some might not own smartphones and for those who do, the installation of apps on a floating population poses very unique challenges
- GPS/Bluetooth switch off
It is very difficult to monitor compliance of GPS/Bluetooth being switched on for every user before entering the work site. The problem amplifies when users switch off GPS/Bluetooth or even the phone, either inadvertently or intentionally to avoid being monitored. While notifications can be sent if GPS/Bluetooth/Phone are off, the operational hassles in managing this dynamic for a large workforce can be quite taxing and distracting from the main workplace priorities
- Reliable tracing vs. battery life
There is a big trade-off between frequency of proximity monitoring and the impact on phone battery life. TagBox’s BLE ID tags scan for a proximity (social distance violation) event every 15 seconds and still last an year without the need for recharging. Mobile phone operating systems on the other hand, do not allow such fine control and can only do a scan every 1 minute at best, leading to a much higher battery drain. Apple and Google’s contact tracing app, for example, does the proximity scan once only every 15 minutes. Such large scan windows, while are in accordance with CDC guidelines, fail to account for multiple short interactions between two people which is to be expected in a workspace. The risk calculation, hence, may no longer be realistic.
- One app, many phones
Mobile apps may not work consistently and reliably across iOS and Android versions, multi brand device specifications and device age
- Big Brother! Employee privacy
Employees may become wary of a corporate app sitting on their personal phone or even a company issued phone that they are carrying back home. Obviously, there are also employee data privacy and security issues that arise because of this. For their national contact tracing mobile app, this privacy issue became an uproar in Singapore. An online petition urging the government to roll the mobile app back garnered more than 17000 signatures and eventually Singapore government announced that they will be developing a wearable device to enable contact tracing for citizens. Commenting on this an IT security expert says, “Notwithstanding the concerns about personal privacy, this technology also introduces multiple concerns about the security threshold of the device itself as well as the data centers where this information is stored. Without next generation endpoint security, network security and more, a malicious attack could be catastrophic for the public.”
- Context labeling
There is a significant amount of “context labeling” required to convert RSSI (BLE signal strength) to physical distance approximations. We, at TagBox, do this in the first 2-3 weeks of starting a new engagement by simulating various employee interaction scenarios, so that the proximity events are calibrated to the client’s operating environment. Doing the same thing with mobile apps on employee’s phones may be difficult given the variability in radio sensitivities of different phone makes, models and OS.
Also, mobile app-based solutions are pretty uni-dimensional, just giving contact tracing benefits at best. When thinking of digital transformation, especially given Covid, enterprises need to evaluate solutions that can provide multiple other benefits which will remain even when Covid threat goes away. For example, TagBox’s Employee Safety solution additionally provides automated attendance, designated and restricted area compliance, mask/PPE compliance and many other yard and supply chain management extensions.
Only mobile app-based solution may not allow enterprises to get their Covid response right the first time, thus putting employee health and safety at risk. We, at TagBox, believe that a mix of BLE tags and mobile app-based solution is apt for enterprises looking to get seamless contact tracing (and applications beyond Covid-19) across factories, warehouses and corporate offices.
Please visit https://www.tagbox.co/social-distancing-and-contact-tracing/ to know more.