COVID-19 contact tracing: Maybe analog trumps APIs and high tech approaches

The technology industry usually thinks it can solve anything. But analog COVID-19 contact tracing may do better than a bevy of smartphone apps.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Amid Apple and Google APIs, privacy concerns and an increasing need for contact tracing amid COVID-19 it's becoming clear that an analog approach may work better.

Rhode Island, a state with residents that comply with mask wearing and a few inconveniences that seem to balance life and business fairly well, has its own app for contact tracing but a keep-it-simple approach may be more valuable.

Every restaurant and bar I visited in the last week took down a name and number to contact in case of a COVID-19 outbreak. Now I'm dreading a call from a 401 area code, but it's straightforward compared to high-tech approaches that have bombed so far. Pen and paper may not be fancy, but to date is probably more effective.

The low-tech approach landed as Android and Apple iOS COVID-19 exposure notifications rolled out (how it works). The catch? These notifications need apps to work. And these COVID-19 tracking apps are a hodge podge of local efforts without a national effort from the CDC. The approach doesn't quite work during the summer travel season and people hopping between states.


iPhone COVID-19 exposure logging (left) and Android (right).

9to5 Mac has a list of states that plan to use the Apple and Google COVID-19 exposure notifications. The short version is that there aren't many states on board with Apple and Google yet. Globally, COVID-19 exposure apps haven't fared well. A few recent headlines include:

The upshot is that we may want to look at Japan's approach to contact tracing given recent efforts have been mixed at best. According to Asia Times, Japan is deploying old-school detective work to zero in on where COVID-19 outbreaks start. The analog approach was honed to battle tuberculosis.

What's shocking is that analog contact tracing has worked better. Nevertheless, Japan recently rolled out a smartphone app for contact tracing.

My money is on the analog approach for the broader population.

Is work different?

When it comes to contact tracing, the enterprise may have a better situation with using technology.

A bevy of enterprise tech vendors have rolled out contact tracing as a feature for businesses. Why will these efforts work better than what various states are trying to do? Businesses have smaller populations to track and integration with HR systems.

Recent enterprise contact tracing tools include:

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