One of the best tools we have to slow the spread of the coronavirus is, as you have no doubt heard by now, contact tracing. But what exactly is contact tracing, who does it and how, and do you need to worry about it?
In short, contact tracing helps prevent the spread of a virus by proactively finding people at higher risk than others due to potential exposure, notifying them if possible, and quarantining them if necessary. It’s a proven technique, and smartphones could help make it even more effective — but only if privacy and other concerns can be overcome.
Contact tracing, from memory to RAM
Contact tracing has been done in some form or another as long as the medical establishment has understood the nature of contagious diseases. When a person is diagnosed with an infectious disease, they are asked whom they have been in contact with over the previous weeks, both in order to determine who may have been infected by them and perhaps where they themselves were infected.
Until very recently, however, the process has relied heavily on the recall of people who are in a highly stressful situation and, until prompted, were probably not paying special attention to their movements and interactions.
This results in a list of contacts that is far from complete, though still very helpful. If those people can be contacted and their contacts likewise traced, a network of potential infections can be built up without a single swab or blood drop, and lives can be saved or important resources better allocated.
You might think that has all changed now what with modern technology and all, but in fact contact tracing being done at hospitals right now is almost all still of the memory-based kind — the same we might have used a hundred years ago.
It certainly seems as if the enormous digital surveillance apparatus that has been assembled around us over the last decade should be able to accomplish this kind of contact tracing easily, but in fact it’s surprisingly useless for anything but tracking what you are likely to click on or buy.
While it would be nice to be able to piece together a contagious person’s week from a hundred cameras spread throughout the city and background location data collected by social media, the potential for abuse of such a system should make us thankful it is not so easy as that. In other, less dire circumstances the ability to track the exact movements and interactions of a person from their digital record would be considered creepy at best, and perhaps even criminal.
But it’s one thing when an unscrupulous data aggregator uses your movements and interests to target you with ads without your knowledge or consent — and quite another when people choose to use the forbidden capabilities of everyday technology in an informed and limited way to turn the tide of a global pandemic. And that’s what modern digital contact tracing is intended to do.
All modern mobile phones use wireless radios to exchange data with cell towers, Wi-Fi routers, and each other. On their own, these transmissions aren’t a very good way to tell where someone is or who they’re near — a Wi-Fi signal can travel 100 to 200 feet reliably, and a cell signal can go miles. Bluetooth, on the other hand, has a short range by design, less than 30 feet for good reception and with a swiftly attenuating signal that makes it unlikely to catch a stray contact from much further out than that.
We all know Bluetooth as the way our wireless earbuds receive music from our phones, and that’s a big part of its job. But Bluetooth, by design, is constantly reaching out and touching other Bluetooth-enabled devices — it’s how your car knows you’ve gotten into it, or how your phone detects a smart home device nearby.
Bluetooth chips also make brief contact without your knowledge with other phones and devices you pass nearby, and if they aren’t recognized, they delete each other from their respective memories as soon as possible. But what if they didn’t?
The type of contact tracing being tested and deployed around the world now uses Bluetooth signals very similar to the ones your phone already transmits and receives constantly. The difference is it just doesn’t automatically forget the other devices it comes into contact with.
Assuming the system is working correctly, what would happen when a person presents at the hospital with COVID-19 is basically just a digitally enhanced version of manual contact tracing. Instead of querying the person’s fallible memory, they query the phone’s much more reliable one, which has dutifully recorded all the other phones it has recently been close enough to connect to. (Anonymously, as we’ll see.)
Those devices — and it’s important to note that it’s devices, not people — would be alerted within seconds that they had recently been in contact with someone who has now been diagnosed with COVID-19. The notification they receive will contain information on what the affected person can do next: Download an app or call a number for screening, for instance, or find a nearby location for testing.
The ease, quickness, and comprehensiveness of this contact tracing method make it an excellent opportunity to help stem the spread of the virus. So why aren’t we all using it already?
Successes and potential worries
In fact digital contact tracing using the above method (or something very like it) has already been implemented with millions of users, apparently to good effect, in east Asia, which of course was hit by the virus earlier than the U.S. and Europe.
In Singapore the TraceTogether app was promoted by the government as the official means for contact tracing. South Korea saw the voluntary adoption of a handful of apps that tracked people known to be diagnosed. Taiwan was able to compare data from its highly centralized healthcare system to a contact tracing system it began work on during the SARS outbreak years ago. And mainland China has implemented a variety of tracking procedures through mega-popular services like WeChat and Alipay.
While it would be premature to make conclusions on the efficacy of these programs while they’re still underway, it seems at least anecdotally to have improved the response and potentially limited the spread of the virus.
But east Asia is a very different place from the U.S.; we can’t just take Taiwan’s playbook and apply it here (or in Europe, or Africa, etc.), for myriad reasons. There are also valid questions of privacy, security, and other matters that need to be answered before people, who for good reason are skeptical of the intentions of both the government and the private sector, will submit to this kind of tracking.
Right now there are a handful of efforts being made in the U.S., the largest profile by far being the collaboration between arch-rivals Apple and Google, which have proposed a cross-platform contact tracing method that can be added to phones at the operating system.
The system they have suggested uses Bluetooth as described above, but importantly does not tie it to a person’s identity in any way. A phone would have a temporary ID number of its own, and as it made contact with other devices, it exchanges numbers. These lists of ID numbers are collected and stored locally, not synced with the cloud or anything. And the numbers also change frequently so no single one can be connected to your device or location.
If and only if a person is determined to be infected with the virus, a hospital (not the person) is authorized to activate the contact tracing app, which will send a notification to all the ID numbers stored in the person’s phone. The notification will say that they were recently near a person now diagnosed with COVID-19 — again, these are only ID numbers generated by a phone and are not connected with any personal information. As discussed earlier, the people notified can then take whatever action seems warranted.
MIT has developed a system that works in a very similar way, and which some states are reportedly beginning to promote among their residents.
Naturally even this straightforward, decentralized, and seemingly secure system has its flaws; this article at the Markup gives a good overview, and I’ve summarized them below:
- It’s opt-in. This is a plus and a minus, of course, but means that many people may choose not to take part, limiting how comprehensive the list of recent contacts really is.
- It’s vulnerable to malicious interference. Bluetooth isn’t particularly secure, which means there are several ways this method could be taken advantage of, should there be any attacker depraved enough to do so. Bluetooth signals could be harvested and imitated, for instance, or a phone driven through the city to “expose” it to thousands of others.
- It could lead to false positives or negatives. In order to maintain privacy, the notifications sent to others would contain a minimum of information, leading them to wonder when and how they might have been exposed. There will be no details like “you stood next to this person in line 4 days ago for about 5 minutes” or “you jogged past this person on Broadway.” This lack of detail may lead to people panicking and running to the ER for no reason, or ignoring the alert altogether.
- It’s pretty anonymous, but nothing is truly anonymous. Although the systems seem to work with a bare minimum of data, that data could still be used for nefarious purposes if someone got their hands on it. De-anonymizing large sets of data is practically an entire domain of study in data science now and it’s possible that these records, however anonymous they appear, could be cross-referenced with other data to out infected persons or otherwise invade one’s privacy.
- It’s not clear what happens to the data. Will this data be given to health authorities later? Will it be sold to advertisers? Will researcher be able to access it, and how will they be vetted? Questions like these could very well be answered satisfactorily, but right now it’s a bit of a mystery.
Contact tracing is an important part of the effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus, and whatever method or platform is decided on in your area — it may be different state to state or even between cities — it is important that as many people as possible take part in order to make it as effective as possible.
There are risks, yes, but the risks are relatively minor and the benefits would appear to outweigh them by orders of magnitude. When the time comes to opt in, it is out of consideration for the community at large that one should make the decision to do so.
Paris-based VC firm Partech unveils Chapter54 accelerator to help European startups cross into Africa – TechCrunch
Partech Shaker, the innovation division of the Paris-based VC firm Partech, has launched an accelerator program christened Chapter54 to help European startups launch in African markets.
The accelerator will take in 10 technology startups annually over the next four years for the Chapter54 program, which will last up to eight months. Application for the inaugural cohort will open next month, and successful startups will begin the acceleration journey in April.
Chapter54 will be funded to a tune of $5.7 million (EUR 5 million) by the KfW Development Bank on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).
“Investors from all sectors are welcome – but they must have business experience, be registered in a European country and active in two European countries, and have a solid financial foundation and regular income,” said KfW.
Vincent Previ, the managing director of Chapter54 told TechCrunch that startups will be taken through several preparation stages including mentorship programs with founders running successful enterprises across the continent, and with c-suite tech or startup executives.
“We have a very good knowledge of the European tech ecosystem because we are one of the most prominent investors in European tech. We are now a major investor in African tech, and we have the capacity to run innovative projects through Partech Shaker… From KfW’s view, we were a good player to run this acceleration program,” said Previ.
Chapter54 will match mentors with startups based on their business models, conduct webinars with different speakers and review startups’ operation roadmaps “to check if what they have designed is consistent with the reality on the ground.”
Previ said that during these sessions, they will “check that the participating companies have the right level of knowledge of what it means to run a tech business in Africa, and have what it takes to hire tech people.”
“We are going to have a session where we will compare the gig economies in Europe and Africa, and another where we will help them do a B2C market sizing in Africa (which is not similar to Europe).”
“If you want to enter Africa, you have to do it properly, and as per legal requirements. You have to tweak the way you work. We are going to help them to reinvent the way they operate their businesses (to enter African markets).”
Chapter54 is targeting startups in growth stage with some sizable traction in the countries they operate in across Europe.
Partech has 15 investments in nine different countries across Africa including Wave; a U.S. and Senegal-based mobile money service provider, Tugende, a Ugandan mobility-tech company, and Trade Depot, a Nigeria and U.S.- based company that connects consumer goods brands to retailers.
Africa’s growing young and tech-savvy population, deepening internet penetration, developing digital infrastructure, and fast uptake of modern technologies by its people has made the continent the next growth frontier. KfW said it is supporting Chapter54 to promote growth and create jobs.
Ahead of a February event, Samsung teases Galaxy S/Note merger – TechCrunch
Last summer, Samsung announced that – for the first time in a decade – it wouldn’t be releasing a new Note. The future of the well-loved phablet was a big, open question, as the hardware giant acknowledged a shift in focus to foldables, a form factor it felt was finally ready for a truly mainstream push.
Further muddying the waters is the Galaxy S line – Samsung’s primary flagship, which has steadily been blurring the line separating itself from the Note. “Instead of unveiling a new Galaxy Note this time around,” the company’s president wrote at the time, “we will further broaden beloved Note features to more Samsung Galaxy devices.”
That’s meant a fairly steady increase in the S series’ screen sizes over the years, culminating with the addition of S-Pen functionality for the S21 Ultra last January. In August, the company also brought its proprietary stylus to the Galaxy Fold line leaving some wondering whether the Note was quietly being phased out.
Coming fresh off CES and staring down the face of MWC, we find ourselves entering Unpacked territory – the time of year when the company announces the latest additions to the S series. Roh is back with another somewhat vaguely worded post that celebrates the life of the Note’s life, pointing out how its 5.3-inch display caused a minor stir back in 2011. It seems quaint now, though it’s worth pointing out for those who weren’t at the IFA unveiling, that big screens meant much larger and thicker devices than they do now.
The post strongly suggests a proper merging of the two flagships to make more room for its foldables.
“With every fresh evolution of Samsung Galaxy devices, we have introduced features that redefine the entire mobile category,” the executive writes. “And we’re about to rewrite the rules of industry once again. At Unpacked in February 2022, we’ll introduce you to the most noteworthy S series [emphasis added by TC] device we’ve ever created. The next generation of Galaxy S is here, bringing together the greatest experiences of our Samsung Galaxy into one ultimate device.”
“Noteworthy” could mean a lot of things in this context. The most obvious seems to be an S22 Ultra becoming the S22 Note. Does that mean a proper stylus slot? Could we be seeing further S Pen integration across the lines? I’d say most likely not to that one, if only because the carefully worded post uses the singular “noteworthy device.” There are still some big questions in the lead up to the event – which may or may not be answered early, given the frequency of leaks surrounding these devices. Also on-tap for the line are improved night/low-light photos and a more sustainable design, which has become a priority for the company in recent years.
Samsung is once again betting that consumer excitement and brand loyalty will be enough to get users on-board, sight unseen as it gets set to open reservations for the new smartphone and an unnamed Galaxy tablet tomorrow.
a16z, Avenir and Google back South African mobile games publisher Carry1st in $20M round – TechCrunch
Carry1st, a South African publisher of social games and interactive content across Africa, has raised a $20 million Series A extension led by Andreessen Horowitz (a16z). This is a16z’s first investment in an Africa-headquartered company (the firm has previously invested in Branch and Zipline, companies with some of its operations in Africa but headquartered in the U.S).
Carry1st also received investments from Avenir and Google; it’s the latter’s second check from its Africa Investment Fund.
A couple of prominent individual investors, including Nas and the founders of Chipper Cash, Sky Mavis and Yield Guild Games, took part.
The round — which is an extension of the Series A Carry1st raised last May from Riot Games, Konvoy Ventures, Raine Ventures and TTV Capital — also saw the same investors double down on their investments in the company.
Andreessen Horowitz general partners David Haber and Jonathan Lai will join Carry1st’s board as observers.
Cordel Robbin-Coker, Lucy Hoffman and Tinotenda Mundangepfupfu founded Carry1st in 2018. The South Africa-based company, which currently has a team of 37 people across 18 countries, wants to use this additional capital to scale interactive content across Africa.
The company started as a game studio where it conceptualized, developed (from system designs to artwork and engineering), and launched mobile games. Over time, it switched to a hybrid model, adopting a publishing role and handling distribution, marketing and operations.
Carry1st co-founder and chief executive Robbin-Coker told TechCrunch that Carry1st has mainly focused on its publishing arm since it went hybrid.
The three-year-old company has signed publishing deals for seven games from six studios globally, including Tilting Point, publisher of Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob: Krusty Cook-Off, which Carry1st recently launched in Africa. Others include CrazyLabs and Sweden’s Raketspel, a studio with over 120 million downloads across its portfolio.
Carry1st said it provides a full-stack publishing solution, handling user acquisition, live operations, community management and monetization for its partners.
“We have a full-suite service that starts with distribution and partnerships. We help them create bespoke marketing materials from short-form advertising videos to statics, and we customize their content to resonate with individuals in different countries,” said Robbin-Coker.
“And then we operate the game and we also monetize. So we’ve built out our monetization engine to allow users to be able to pay for content that they want more easily across Africa.”
It also enhances monetization in the region through its embedded payments solutions, where customers can pay via a range of local payment options, including bank transfers, crypto and mobile money.
Shortly after closing its Series A round, Carry1st launched its online marketplace for virtual goods. On this marketplace, called Carry1st Shop, users of a Carry1st game can purchase virtual goods such as airtime, mobile data, entertainment vouchers, grocery store vouchers and gaming currency.
Games revenue has increased 90% month-on-month since the second half of last year, the company said. It’s not unexpected considering the astonishing growth of games in terms of quantity and revenue (gaming apps accounted for nearly 70% of all App Store revenue last year) on both Apple and Google stores since the pandemic.
The company’s online marketplace is noticing even faster growth, said Robbin-Coker, especially among users in South Africa and Nigeria.
Carry1st will use this funding to expand its content portfolio, grow its product and engineering teams, and obtain “tens of millions” of new users on the back of this revenue growth in its games and marketplace products.
In a statement, the company said it intends to acquire more users by expanding into game co-development with studios. It is also eyeing the possibility of developing infrastructure to support play-to-earn gaming in Africa, thus venturing into web3.
Cryptocurrency tokens such as SLP, AXS and MANA are used in play-to-earn games. They can be withdrawn to a crypto wallet and traded for another cryptocurrency like bitcoin or ultimately sold for fiat cash to be used in the real world. Carry1st wants to create on- and off-ramps (platforms that convert fiat into crypto and back) and accept crypto at point-of-sale in its marketplace.
“When we think about Carry1st, we want to be the leading consumer internet company in the region. And we think that the best kind of wedge would be able to do that is a combination of gaming and micropayments and online commerce,” the CEO said.
“These industries are being pretty significantly disrupted or augmented with web3 and crypto. And as more gaming content starts to integrate with NFTs and cryptocurrencies, we think there’s a really big opportunity to partner with those studios the same way we partner with free-to-play studios.”
Africa is the next major growth market for gaming globally. The rapid tech adoption from its 1.1 billion millennials and GenZs is a significant driver for this. Carry1st released a report last year with Newzoo showing that the number of games in sub-Saharan Africa will increase by 275% in the next decade. Gaming revenues are projected to see a 728% increase in the same period.
These stats present a much bigger addressable market than what Carry1st envisioned when it launched four years ago. And with the company’s converging at the intersection of gaming, fintech and web3, there is a broader set of opportunities (which we can see in other emerging markets) to go after in Africa. It’s one factor that piqued a16z’s interest in the company.
“We are delighted to be making our first investment in an Africa-headquartered company in Carry1st, a next-generation mobile games and fintech platform,” Haber said in a statement. “We see immense opportunity for the company to mirror outstanding successes we’ve seen in markets like India, China, and Southeast Asia. We couldn’t be more thrilled to partner with founders Cordel, Lucy, Tino, and the Carry1st team on their mission to build the Garena of Africa.”
Carry1st was seemingly intentional about the investors it brought into this round, especially as it looks to move deep in gaming, web3 and fintech across Africa.
As one of the largest crypto-centric funds, at over $3 billion, a16z brings unmatched expertise in gaming and web3. Google, via its products and phones, will help Carry1st deepen penetration and engagement in Africa. At the same time, Avenir continues to make a big push in African fintech following its big-sized check in Flutterwave.
As for the individual investors, Nas has been fairly prolific with his crypto investments, and Axie Infinity founders own the world’s biggest web3 gaming company.
“It’s a heavyweight group. We’re excited, and we think that their combination will be beneficial for us. Hopefully, it’s a sign that we’re on the right track and this helps drive strategic partnerships for us in the future,” said Robbin-Coker.
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