Note: I originally wrote this on March 24, 2020 and shared it with friends and family as a Google Doc. I’m now publishing it on my blog on April 8, 2020 as a few of the ideas have already been implemented by others (I’m certain independently – many of the ideas are obvious) and hopefully more will as well. If we happen to “flatten the curve” this month, we should work on something to deal with it in case it comes back (as soon as this winter by many experts accounts). Please share if you agree.
Can a Smartphone App Save Lives and Our Economy from the Coronavirus?
Let’s assume that we have to do both: we need to beat the virus (stop the spread) to save as many lives as possible but we also need to get our economy going (assume a depression would cause tens of thousands of opioid overdoses, suicides, etc.).
I know there’s a huge argument going on that “we can’t do both” but if it helps, then imagine you are a world leader and had a gun to your head and you absolutely had to do both. Given that scenario, what would be the fastest and easiest way to do this?
May I humbly submit a smartphone app and website (with necessary personnel working on backend and fulfillment) may be able to help? Singapore is using an app and they’ve mostly beaten the virus (for now).
I know what you’re thinking: “here we go, another out of touch tech bro that doesn’t get it..” which is fine. I’m also totally unqualified as well so you can heap on that criticism as well but I don’t think it’s helpful.
Update: Some of these ideas have already been implemented so I’m not a complete idiot.
Note that the priority would likely be to get a “minimum viable product” (MVP) out to the Google Android and Apple App website for download as soon as possible and keep iterating and adding features as we can. Let’s call it the Federal Response App for now.
I’m aware that our government has a National Response Framework that requires cooperation between local, state and Federal agencies.
This app is mostly to coordinate people, suppliers, hospitals and businesses and would hopefully “work around” some of the inefficiencies of the framework which I think we can all agree has not been that effective. Mostly, there is a lack of data from real people, governments, hospitals and businesses “on the ground”.
How The App Works
You open it up and it looks like this:
- Forgot Password
Registering will require you to enter your email or phone number (to receive important emails or texts), password, name, age, location, if you have any elderly in your household over X years (say 50 years old or whatever we determine is most susceptible), if you’ve been tested for Covid-19 (and the result), if you are willing to volunteer or help others in your community. We could ask if there are any medical or pre-existing conditions as well.
I think the main idea here is to prevent people without the appropriate symptoms from overwhelming Emergency Rooms and Covid-19 testing facilities (at least until we “flatten the curve” or spike of immediate cases).
So I think some sort of simple “Symptoms Wizard” where you would check off the symptoms you have and then the wizard can recommend you either go to an ER, call your doctor or get tested.
UPDATE: Apple has implemented this idea.
After you go through the wizard, a simple listing of locations (by distance) where you can get tested with specific instructions (drive-thru, hours of business, average wait) would be very helpful. Something like https://findcovidtesting.com/. Ideally, we’d soon ramp up at-home testing if possible and you could order from the app.
After testing, you update the app with your status and that data is sent back for important use (see below).
Get Medical Help or Advice
Again, I think the main thing is to keep people at home and prevent too many people from overwhelming testing facilities, doctors and Emergency Rooms so this part of the app would also recommend the “Symptoms Wizard” at first.
From what I’ve read, 90%+ of Covid tests from people with symptoms are coming back negative, so we need to prioritize essential workers and those with severe symptoms.
The app could recommend home remedies and other solutions for those whose symptoms are not severe. For example, Vitamins D, C, Zinc, (foods with all those things as well), sunlight, fresh air, frequently drinking warm liquids, etc. It’s a terrible choice to make, but we need to keep the non-severe out of the Emergency Rooms and from taking up doctors and nurses time right now.
For those who have pre-existing conditions or severe symptoms (dry coughing with difficulty breathing, etc.), ideally you would call your doctor or perhaps the app could eventually connect you directly with the local health department, local nurse hotlines or, eventually, live tele-doctor services. There are several tele-doctor services coming online now like Plushcare and SteadyMD so tying in with them should not be too difficult.
An important function would be to show the local emergency rooms in your area and the average wait time for each (this could be updated by those who register as a provider or even other registered users).
I actually think this statistic might be more valuable then the total number of positive or negative tests – what we really care about is how overwhelmed the hospitals are and so that is the “god metric” in my opinion.
Eventually, if treatments like Chloroquine and Z-Paks prove effective we could perhaps begin prescribing or even shipping directly to consumers via the app.
Finally we would put all the home and work guidelines from the CDC for washing hands, etc. here just in case the thousands of other recommendations on this are not getting through to people.
Get Food or Supplies
The supply chain is a bit slowed currently but it seems to be functioning okay for those that can shop or have the money to order online. So, I think this section would primarily be to serve those that are homebound without enough money or resources to request help and requests could be routed to local governments or even posted publicly to local users (who can volunteer to help). I fear a lot of older or unhealthy people may simply die from not having enough food or support if they’re sick or home bound.
Importantly, we need to supply our essential workers, especially medical and security, with masks, gloves, sanitizer, etc. so there should be a way for a registered provider (see below) to request priority supplies. I keep seeing Emergency Rooms begging for supplies on Twitter and that’s not an efficient way to prioritize obviously.
Get Approved to Work or Travel
If we need to save the economy quickly, there has to be some way or method to allow some people to work or travel to approved places. But only if they want to work or travel for work (essential only, not “meetings”), can prove they are not infected and don’t live with anyone over (for example) 50 years old.
This would especially apply to those who have tested positive and overcome the virus because they likely have immunity (but should continue to take precautions). Immune and young people could be a powerful “Immunity Corps” as they increase in number and are able to work and volunteer.
This will probably be a pretty difficult part of the app to build but probably the most essential to the economy. I can imagine that a “Get Approved” button would verify your identity (there are many 3rd party verification services, credit agencies, etc.) and have you swear under oath that you do not live with elders, have no symptoms, have been tested or have fully recovered after X days of testing positive. If we needed to move fast we could skip the verification and trust in people for now, then add the verification later.
Perhaps this certification can then generate a “Q-Code” or even a simple printable PDF that can be provided to law enforcement, employers, etc. for verification. Governors could choose to allow these people to break quarantine under whatever conditions they deem necessary.
UPDATE: It seems California is now requiring a letter for essential employees to travel outside the home. Would be ideal if an app could handle this.
Importantly, I think then we’d need to somehow track these people or tie into another app like the MIT Safe Paths app which was just released (and has privacy protections too). This data would be critical to tracking the virus.
UPDATE 4/14: Google and Apple are working together to create anonymous tracking of users to help track Covid-19.
Finally, there is mounting evidence that the government should simply require masks of all people who leave the house so there should be resources to make your own mask, or use the “Get Supplies” section to show where to get masks or have them shipped to those that are working (prioritized by “essential” service providers).
Register Friends and Family Members
Not everyone has or knows how to use a smartphone. Obviously there may be some complexities here but having a “Select User” menu at the top could allow you to switch between friends and family members so you could use the functions of this app on their behalf, even if they’re not close to you.
For example, if your folks need help in another state you could switch to their profile and request testing, see ER wait times or other help. Obviously this function could be abused so safeguards or limitations may have to apply (e.g. maximum of 10 users total or some kind of verification). This would also help us track the positive and tested people.
Finally, the data we get from those users that have tested positive and their location may be usable to set up “Green Zones” where businesses are safe to open vs “Red Zones” which has too many infected to open.
Register as a Provider
“Who has the supplies?” is a big question right now and I see doctors and Emergency Rooms begging for supplies. I also see a lot of people just trying to find testing, information or even sanitizer. This section would allow you to register as a medical provider (perhaps we can have retired nurses and doctors register as well), doctors office, testing facility, Emergency Room and medical device supplier or manufacturer.
In addition, certain areas need medical (or other critical staffing like delivery, sanitation, etc.) and this would be an area to register yourself as “available” to do this. For medical providers we could ask if they’re retired or in-school to prioritize “emergency” areas with staff that are not so experienced but need the help.
Obviously, we’d need a verification process (see below) but that can usually be done quickly via online business registration and licensing records. We could require the company’s Federal Employer Identification Number (FEIN) and NAICS code (only certain codes allowed like “Medical Provider”) to streamline this.
Finally, we’d need an ability to connect those that need supplies with those that have them. A simple listing of email and phone numbers to start along with an “Info Page” for each showing what you have (or need) and how to order it, what the shipping time is, etc. Emergency Rooms could use their “Info Page” to update wait times, etc.
UPDATE: It seems some volunteers are doing this, specifically for masks. Would be easier in an app though and we need it for more than just masks.
Register Your Business or Agency
It’s pretty embarrassing but many cities and states don’t have centralized information or resources (at least not at first) and we had people on Facebook begging for information and direction. This section should let State and Local governments register their agency and get an “Info Page” that would be shown to their users by location.
I think to be safe we may need to also have certain “essential” businesses register and we could tie those that are “Approved to Work” with the appropriate business. Eventually, maybe even those businesses that need emergency workers can announce it through the app.
Here you could update each user, supplier, business or agency profile and your accompanying “Info Page”. We’d need to figure out permissions and more for these entities (or detect duplicates) but the verification team could handle that (see below).
So, this summarizes the basic functionality of the app, now I’ll go into some of the back office requirements I think may be needed.
Data Integrity and Verification Team
I think a main priority is that we need a large scale team that can verify doctors, testing facilities, business registrations, supplier licenses, etc. I imagine any large government (or private) call or document processing center (same one that does passports or other government registrations?) could be re-tasked and trained to do this fairly quickly.
So requests would be submitted through the app and go into a back end data processing queue at this facility. They would use online resources and other databases to confirm others and remove or merge duplicate requests. Once approved, the app notifies the person, business or agency.
I don’t think individual users could be verified at scale without some kind of automation (of which there are 3rd party providers) but certainly suppliers, hospital ERs, essential businesses and Government Agencies could be.
Who Would Build It
The stimulus packages are going to be well over 2 trillion dollars so even if this app and back office cost a billion dollars that would be less than 1/1000th of that package. My initial thought was Facebook but I don’t think anyone trusts their privacy practices so a company like Microsoft (who just won a huge Pentagon contract for billions and already has a security process in place) would be ideal – they can build it and host it. Offer to pay them $500 million to deliver the app (with measurable results) in X days, $750 million or increasing amounts for an earlier date to incentivize speed. Hell, even if it’s $5 billion it’s easily worth it.
There’s also the possibility of using a similar team of cross-company experts that fixed HealthCare.gov after it was launched. Something like that may be preferable but I think the important thing is to waive the compliance and non-privacy regulation bullshit for now and just get it done. We’ll patch up all of that later.
Finally, I think we should specify from day one there be an absolutely rock-solid privacy and “delete my data” guarantee that would let any user of any type permanently delete their data.
Problems to Resolve
Obviously there’s a lot of unanswered questions, mostly on building the app, keeping the back end stable, preventing privacy abuse, preventing “bad actors”, etc. etc. I’m sure I’m forgetting enormous issues so please let me know in the comments and I’ll keep updating this post.