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

By Rosalie Chan

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 released 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 contributed to one, called COVID Shield, while a team at Irish enterprise software developer NearForm contributed to another, called COVID Green.

Since these apps are open source, people can contribute code, download them for free, and customize them, allowing regions with similar needs to collaborate, general manager at Linux Foundation Public Health, Dan Kohn, told Business Insider.

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 hospital database, any user who has been in 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using exposure notification, it could reduce infections and deaths by approximately 8% and 6%, although this study has not yet been peer-reviewed.

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.

"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."

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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.  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 several US states are using the Linux Foundation Public Health's apps, though they are not mandated by state governments. 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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