India launches apps to track corona cases and tackle misinformation

By on 06/04/2020
A local artist has created the ‘corona helmet’ used by Indian police to spread awareness of the severity of the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Shantanu Dutta via flickr).

The Indian government has launched a coronavirus tracking app, two weeks after it created a WhatsApp chatbot – designed to provide citizens with information about the pandemic – which has so far been used by 20 million people.

The new tracking app, called Aarogya Setu – which translates as ‘a bridge of health’ – has been launched by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology and created in partnership with private sector companies. The Artificial Intelligence system behind it uses app users’ mobile phone location and Bluetooth data to assess whether they’ve been within six feet of a person infected with COVID-19.

The anonymised data of people who have downloaded the app is sent to a server and checked against a database of known cases and their movements. If a person with the app tests positive for coronavirus or has been in close contact with someone who has, the app shares that data with the government, according to TNW.

The app, which is available in 11 Indian languages, also asks users a list of questions such as their place of residence and whether they are a healthcare worker, weighting its assessment of the chances of their having contracted the virus. It includes live updates from the health ministry and a list of helpline numbers for each state in India.

“If you come into contact with a COVID-19 positive patient you will get a notification through this app,” joint secretary of the health ministry, Lav Aggarwal, told reporters. He added that 100,000 people had downloaded the app on the day of its launch.

The government hopes the app will help to limit the spread of the virus in conjunction with an initial 21-day lockdown, which began on 25 March.

Privacy concerns

The government had said the identities of those using the app are not known to it nor passed on to third parties. However, India Today reported that privacy groups have raised concerns about the app – which also asks for people’s name and age – being used for mass surveillance.

This comes after a much-criticised decision by the state government of Karnataka to publish the names and addresses of nearly 20,000 international passengers who had flown back to India shortly before commercial flights were banned. According to reports, it asked citizens to report whether any of those on the list had broken self-quarantine rules.

The names, phone numbers and passport information of 20 people in the southern city of Hyderabad – stored in a government agency database – have also been leaked on WhatsApp, according to reports. Privacy groups are concerned that a breach of the Aarogya Setu app’s firewall protections could lead to a similar leak.

Like India, countries including China, South Korea and Singapore have launched coronavirus tracking apps. Their value is dramatically increased when use is widespread – ensuring that many of those diagnosed with corona already have the app, and thus making it possible to retrace their movements in detail.

Misinformation-busting chatbot

The Indian government has also launched MyGov Corona Helpdesk, a WhatsApp chatbot designed to raise awareness about the coronavirus pandemic and tackle misinformation. Citizens who text the bot with questions about COVID-19 symptoms, how to seek help and other queries receive instant replies. The information disseminated to citizens through the chatbot is provided by the Ministry of Health.

According to Mumbai-based AI-specialist Haptik Technologies, which built the bot, more than 55 million messages have been sent by over 20 million users since the chatbot was launched on 20 March.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

One Comment

  1. Sujay Kulkarni

    26/04/2020 at

    i want app

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