Covid19Tracker: El Salvador’s new app fighting the pandemic
Latin Lawyer speaks to Carlos Miguel Rivas, a lawyer and tech start-up co-founder whose new app is helping to track and contain the covid-19 epidemic in El Salvador.
Who? Salvadorian attorney Carlos Miguel Rivas, who specialises in tech law. He is also co-founder of tech start-up Hardmode Interactive and developer of the new Covid19Tracker application.
What? The app allows authorities to map the spread of the disease. If a member of the public shows symptoms, their recent movements can be checked by data sent through the app. Other people that have been in their vicinity can then be contacted and tested, or simply isolate themselves.
Why? El Salvador still has very few cases of covid-19. This tech solution, inspired by similar apps in Asian countries, could be a crucial factor in containing its spread.
Latin Lawyer: How does the app work?
Carlos Miguel Rivas: When you download the app, we request an email and a password. You are just a number in a database, anonymous.
Let’s imagine I go to the shopping centre. Later I get sick, I go to the hospital and have symptoms. The doctor can request my app ID, and then we can search for that number in the database. By using geolocation we can obtain information about all the people that were at the shopping centre on the same day, and wherever I went afterwards.
Those people will receive an email: “Hi, on X day you were in the shopping centre of X address. There were people with covid-19 symptoms visiting that place too. We recommend that you get in touch with a physician close to you, so that you can get tested.”
LL: What data regulations applied to setting up the Covid19Tracker?
In our case, we made the regulations ourselves. Although there was no legal obligation, we followed some guidelines from the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP) and also the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), even though GDPR doesn’t apply to El Salvador. It is different in other countries. I think Panama is one step ahead of most of Central America on data privacy because they have been working substantially on data regulations and compliance.
We need to create a law for managing personal data in El Salvador, and create a separate agency that regulates and manages this.
LL: Would the Covid19Tracker comply with data regulation outside of El Salvador?
Rivas: One company from the US reached out to us to customise our app for the US market. To enter the US market we would have to comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), as well as the GDPR. In El Salvador there is no regulation for these things, so it’s easier. But in the US it must be more complete and follow stricter rules.
The app only requests three authorisations on your device: camera, internet and location. Other apps infringe much more on users’ privacy. We even saw an app like ours from another country in Central America, which requested access to your memory card!
LL: The app cannot currently be downloaded through Appstore and Playstore due to Apple/Google policies. What can governments do to make the app available?
Rivas: We would have to submit legal documentation to prove to Appstore and Playstore that we have the backing of the Salvadorian government. We already have an agreement for the government to handle the legal matters to submit this documentation.
On 2 April, the Ministry of Innovation approved a pilot programme for the app with the Salvadorian government. They are really excited about the resourcefulness of the application. We are running a test programme, in which more than 25 people from the government are taking part.
Everything has gone very fast. We developed the app in a couple of days as we had to be fast and efficient.
We are also working on a separate medical app called Covid19 Tracker Med, where doctors in the field can report symptoms of the patients they are treating to a database. Right now, we are working on the integration of the two apps.
LL: The app sounds great, but with so many asymptomatic carriers, how can we know who has been infected?
Rivas: Right now, a significant part of the population is requesting that the government perform more tests, but our daily testing is very limited; we can only process 500 tests a day. I think it will soon be upgraded to 1,000. But that’s all the capacity we have.
Private laboratories are trying to work with the government and find a way to support it. I hope the government allows them to do so soon.
LL: You’ve mentioned a similar app developed in China. Why has it not been used across the world?
Rivas: I don’t know why governments haven’t used diplomatic channels to get the source code of the application and customise it for their countries. It would be cheaper, and the governments would have a centralised app.
We’re not going to make money from the application. We are totally aware of that. It was a personal challenge for our start-up to see if we could make something that could benefit our country.
The 1.0 version of our application was ready in 30 hours I believe, and we are a small start-up. Imagine what governments could do with their resources collecting multiple excellent developers. Every country could have an excellent application. I don’t know why more countries haven’t done it.
LL: How does the challenge in China compare to the one in El Salvador?
Rivas: In China they have a very disciplined population, so the government ordered everyone to download the app and everyone downloaded it. It allows them to track everybody.
Here in El Salvador we are 6 or 7 million people, and there are more than 9 million mobile phones. But still, we are not a technologically educated population. The challenge was to customise the solutions that have been so useful in Asian countries to our reality as well as to our internet limitation.
Many people here in El Salvador don’t have data purchased on their phones. So, we found a way for the app to save your locations in your phone memory. As soon as you have new data or a wifi connection, that data detailing your recent movements goes to the server.
LL: What can the legal community do to help fight the spread of covid-19?
Rivas: In El Salvador, as in many Latin American countries, most of the economy is informal. For example, in El Salvador 75% of the economic activity is informal. Those workers don’t pay taxes or any social security. Since they are not formal, the government aid programmes are not reaching them.
I believe the legal industry in Latin America should focus on trying to facilitate a structure to incorporate these people into the formal economy. We have to create an innovative finance vehicle to strengthen small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). I think the big winners in the crisis will be those that can come up with solutions that provide support for SMEs. After all, they employ most of the population.
LL: Most of Latin Lawyer’s readership want to help. They’re not doctors, and most do not know how to make apps. How can they best apply their expertise?
Rivas: They’re not doctors, they’re not developers, you’re totally right. All these readers have a big capacity to help through economic programmes. They have good connections with, for example, multilateral funds. They should be working on creating new structures for SMEs and poor people.
Imagine a situation where companies are forced to close, and people are left unemployed. I believe that is the big challenge for lawyers, economists, and policymakers. They must work on public policies to help their economies the best they can.
We hope that with this resource we can save some lives. At the end of the day, it’s our responsibility. We are happy that it’s already starting to pay off.