How technology can support contact tracing

The NZ COVID Tracer application is an excellent contact tracing tool but we know it will not meet everyone’s needs. That’s why we are enabling third-party apps to exchange digital contact tracing information with the Ministry. This will help us rapidly identify and manage new cases of COVID-19 so we can break the chain of virus transmission.

Background

In June 2020, the Ministry released the data specifications for the official NZ COVID Tracer QR codes. This enabled third-party developers to update their apps to become compatible with the official QR codes and removed the need for businesses to display multiple codes.

These apps fall into one of two categories.

  1. Digital diaries – these allow an individual to make an electronic record of locations they have visited and store these on a personal device. The NZ COVID Tracer app includes a digital diary, and most other digital diary solutions also involve smartphone apps (for example, Paperkite’s Rippl app).
     
  2. Visitor register – these apps allow businesses or location managers to maintain an electronic record of individuals who have visited their locations. These are typcially stored in a centralised database managed by the business or their Information Technology supplier. Examples include registered Snapper card (transport) users and individuals using the SaferMe smartphone and business app.

Third-party developers were then invited to register their interest in working with the Ministry. Three new partners – PaperKite, SaferMe and Snapper – began trialing the contact tracing APIs. This process confirmed that users of third-party apps were able to receive NZ COVID Tracer contact alerts and transmit either their digital diaries or visitor registers to the Ministry when required.

In order to partner with the Ministry, these developers had to establish that each user’s location history – or the visitor history from a location – was recorded securely. They also needed to confirm that no user information would be shared with the Ministry without the user’s consent.

How the contact tracing APIs work

1. Identify anyone who has come into contact with an infected individual

Key to contact tracing is getting information about the contacts of anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19. This is to identify the source of the infection and identify others who may have been exposed to the virus.

2. Broadcast Exposure Events of Interest

The Ministry then shares information about the movements of any probable or confirmed cases of COVID-19 and their close contacts. This is done by broadcasting Exposure Events of Interest notifications through an API.

These notifications contain a location identifier (GLN) and a specific time window indicating the presence of the case or their close contacts.

3. Transfer information to the Ministry

Once a business has authorised the release of check-in details from their location – or an individual has allowed details of their visited locations to be provided to contact tracers – the transfer process can begin.

The contact tracer will provide a six-digit alphanumeric code to the business or individual to enter into the third-party solution. This will authorise the transfer of this information to the Ministry.

Why is the Ministry making these APIs available?

The integration of third-party apps can enhance the contact tracing process and pave the way for future opportunities to work with the Ministry.

Integration will:

  • help contact tracers obtain information faster about potential close contacts and have the ability to notify them of possible risk
  • increase the range and volume of information available to contact tracers
  • ensure more New Zealanders can receive contact alerts and share their location histories with the Ministry where required
  • make it easier for contact tracers to directly contact people who may have been exposed to COVID-19
  • provide a solid platform for integration with further third-party apps and technology, subject to appropriate privacy and security controls.

These benefits will be balanced with privacy and consent requirements, and the data security and integrity of any integrations. The overall clinical value in collecting the information will also be considered.

Assumptions

The following assumptions have been made about the use of third-party solutions.

  • Any recorded locations are identified by a Global Location Number (GLN). A location without a GLN has less value to the contact tracing process, as it is more difficult to uniquely identify a location, undertake cluster identification, or send EEOI notifications.
  • Developers of solutions that use QR codes will support the NZ COVID Tracer QR code format where possible and promote the use of these posters to their customers.
  • No data provided by the Ministry will be used to build a new data repository or index outside of the scope of that agreed by the Ministry.

Integration benefits

The integration of third-party apps will provide considerable benefits.

Benefits for New Zealanders

  • New Zealanders will have a greater choice in the way they keep track of where they’ve been and who they’ve been in contact with.
  • Having a variety of app solutions will reduce the need for manual tracing registers which carry a number of potential privacy and safety issues, including:
    • inaccurate or illegible handwritten information
    • the increased risk of infection from pen-sharing
    • inadvertent disclosure of personal information to unauthorised staff or other customers when the material is visible on a page, rather than ‘hidden’ in an electronic format.
  • It will be easier to see which solutions have been certified and are integrated with the NCTS.
  • New Zealanders can feel confident that government is working with vendors to improve contact tracing efficiency.

Benefits for partners

  • Integrators can enhance their service offerings, and potentially obtain a market advantage through being ‘endorsed’ by the Ministry of Health as an integration partner.
  • They will gain greater insight into the contact tracing process and the information supporting it.
  • There may be future opportunities to work with the Ministry for the health of New Zealanders.
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