Singapore’s contact tracing app doesn’t work well on iPhones. What now?

In the age of the coronavirus pandemic, the act of contact tracing has taken on a valuable approach by way of smartphone apps that alert users when they’ve been potentially exposed to the deadly virus.

Not only has this helped authorities across the world in mitigating the spread of COVID-19, it has also helped them identify various clusters, allowing them to take decisive action without wasting precious time.

Of course, there are concerns for individual privacy, with location tracking being the most prevalent function of contact tracing apps. But people have generally taken a positive stance with its use, for the greater good at least.

But Singaporean authorities discovered a fatal flaw with their contact tracing app. It works fine on Android, not so much on iOS devices.

IMAGE: iSmash

The app, TraceTogether, hasn’t been made compulsory for Singaporeans for this very reason, according to Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan.

But why exactly is it having such a hard time working properly on iOS devices? The app uses wireless Bluetooth technology to detect when a user has come into close proximity with a person infected with COVID-19 for an extended period of time.

However, unlike Android devices, iOS devices such as the Apple iPhone suspend real-time Bluetooth scanning when the app is being used in the background.

This makes the use of the app incredibly inefficient and cumbersome on iPhones.

“We have had repeated discussions at both the technical and policy level with Apple, but we have not yet been able to find a satisfactory solution,” said Balakrishnan.

There are other problems with TraceTogether, perhaps not a fault of its own.

IMAGE: The Vulcan Post

According to Balakrishnan, who also heads the Smart Nation and Digital Government Group (SNDGG), only 1.5 million users have downloaded the app in Singapore since its launch in March earlier this year.

That figure makes up only a quarter of Singapore’s total population. And in order for an app of this nature to work well, downloads would have to reach the optimum of 75 percent of the general population.

Otherwise, the app’s applicability will not meet its potential.

However, migrants who live and work near high-risk areas are mandated to use the TracingTogether app, as prescribed by the Singaporean government.

But what if there was another way for the Singaporean government to engage in efficient contact tracing?

Could the new wearable look more like a smart fitness tracker? IMAGE: Digital Trends

That’s exactly what Balakrishnan is tabling, and the proposed alternative might surprise you. What is it exactly?

A wearable device.

Currently in the development phase, the wearable device will not require the user to have a smartphone.

This is good news for those who aren’t exactly technologically-inclined. It’s also good news for people who don’t own smartphones, especially individuals living in the more vulnerable communities of Singapore.

There are also plans to distribute the device to all 5.6 million people in the city state, but only if its initial rollout is successful.

But what will it look like exactly?

In an interview with Sky News Australia, Balakrishnan revealed that the device can also be used on a lanyard or put in a handbag so it’s out of the way when you don’t need it. Further details of the device itself and the date of rollout haven’t been released yet.

Are you Team Smartphone App or Team Wearable?

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Cover image sourced from The Straits Times.