The steady spread of the coronavirus continues to dominate the news and weigh on the minds of the public. As of March 5, the worldwide total number of confirmed cases had reached 97,800, according to the New York Times. Of these cases, 211 are in the US, indicating the sickness has officially made its way to the west.
The virus’ alarming resilience has led some people to look for unconventional solutions. Among these are app developers in Asia, where numerous mobile apps have popped up to help users track the spread of the disease and assess their own risk level based on public health data.
Back in February, the Chinese government released an official app to track the disease. Per Forbes, China worked in tandem with mobile apps like Alipay, a popular electronic payment app, and WeChat. By scanning a QR code with one of these apps, users can determine if they’re in close proximity to confirmed coronavirus cases.
Independent app developers have also joined the effort. In South Korea, CNN reports apps like Corona 100m, Corona Map, and Corona Doctor are rising in popularity. Information for these apps comes from public government health data. Corona Map developer Lee Jun-young said he created the app to make the information easier to understand. “I thought it would be nice to mark [the locations of coronavirus patients] on a map,” he told CNN.
Unlike China’s state-run coronavirus app, these South Korean apps are funded out of developers’ pockets or through donations. Still, the public seems to have accepted them as a useful tool. “The installs are increasing about 20,000 every hour,” said Bae Won-Seok, a developer of the Corona 100m app, to CNN.
Coming to America?
With confirmed cases in the US increasing, could similar apps become prevalent stateside? For the moment, it seems unlikely. For one thing, American app sellers like Google Play and Apple’s App Store have been extremely wary of approving coronavirus-related apps. CNBC reports that Apple has rejected several coronavirus tracking apps, telling one developer that only apps released by official health organizations or governments would be allowed.
Meanwhile, Google Play prohibits apps that “’capitalize on a natural disaster, atrocity’ or appear to ‘profit from a tragic event with no discernible benefit to the victims,’” CNBC stated. The outlet reports that as of March 5, all search results for “coronavirus” and “COVID-19” had disappeared from the store.
US medical privacy laws may also impact tracking apps’ access to health data. As Forbes notes, “HIPAA laws in the US would likely impact large scale collection efforts of this type.” On top of this, the idea might not appeal to the American public just yet. A poll conducted by SmartBrief, asked respondents if they would download an app that cross-referenced users’ location history to assess infection risk. According to Forbes, 70% of readers responded “no.”
Crowd-sourced flu tracker apps like Sickweather are currently available in the US for Apple and Android. However, their installation rates fall well below the heights of South Korea’s independently created apps, possibly indicating that, at least for now, US users remain outside of these apps’ target audience.