29 January 2022, Apia Samoa. Samoa has just come out of a nation-wide lockdown with the assurance that there is no evidence of a community transmission. However, should covid-19 ever penetrate our community, the ability to trace close contacts of those infected will no doubt be crucial to controlling its spread.
A Contact Tracing Platform
The Samoa Travel Tracer App didn’t get too much attention when it was launched in September last year, but with Covid-19 at our doorsteps, it has suddenly become crucial to Samoa’s Covid-19 response. Prime Minister Hon Fiame Naomi Mataafa’s keynote address at that launch clarifies much of what we need to know about the App.
The Prime Minister said the Samoa Travel Tracer App is a Covid-19 contact tracing platform, developed as a joint initiative of the Ministry of Health (MOH) and the Samoa Tourism Authority (STA).
“The Travel Tracer is Samoa’s very own mobile application”, the Prime Minister revealed at the time, “developed locally in partnership with SkyEye and the Samoa Information Technology Association (SITA) as a tool that could rapidly perform contact monitoring, if and when the need should arise”.
“They enable the automatic detection of close-contacts and thus help save precious hours of work that public health staff carry-out to trace a chain of infection,” Hon Fiame had added.
The Prime Minister assured the protection of individual privacy with the Samoa Travel Tracer App. “Data collected will be anonymous and encrypted and used solely by the Ministry of Health for contact tracing purposes to help keep our community safe.”
It was revealed that the Samoa Travel Tracer is based on the privacy-preserving BlueTrace protocol developed in Singapore, and it uses Bluetooth to trace close contact between its users.
“As an App user, only you can give consent to the Ministry of Health to access your close-contact information,” stated the Prime Minister, “and only after you grant your consent will health officials be able to access information collected by the App on your phone”.
It Does Not Track Location
Responding to questions from Samoa Global News, STA’s Principal Public Relations and Communications Officer, Taimalelagi Tutuila Farao clarified the App does not track a user’s physical location, so there is no information collected or stored about your location.
“It only traces close contacts – that is, if users of the App come into close contact with each other, the App will record this, but not the place where they are at,” explains Taimalelagi.
So if someone in the community was tested positive, and they had been using the Samoa Travel Tracer App, then a list of mobile numbers for whomever they had been in close contact with, can be uploaded to authorities.
However for any of it to work, both the positive case and the close contact would have to have been Users of the App.
“It’s effectiveness depends on the number of people who are using the App,” says Taimalelagi. “Resources are scarce and particularly in the case of small island states like Samoa, so it’s very important for all of us with smartphones to use the App.”
Simple and Easy to Use
The App has a simple user interface and is available to be downloaded to your mobile phone from the Google Play and App Stores.
If you have not yet installed the Samoa Travel Tracer App, you can pause reading this for a sec and go to Play Store or Apple Store (for iPhones) and search, “Samoa Travel Tracer”. You’ll see the icon pop up, and you’ll find that the process of downloading and registering will take less than a minute.
You Must Register your Mobile Number after You Download
Now, downloading the App and registering your number on the App, are two different things.
As explained by Taimalelagi, at the time he responded to our questions, the Samoa Travel Tracer App had more than 5,200 downloads through Google Play and App Store, but only around 3,100 people had registered as Users.
Taimalelagi says this means more than 2,100 people had yet to register and activate the App even though they had already downloaded it. “It’s really important that people complete the process by registering after they’ve downloaded the app,” Taimalelagi stressed.
The only information the App requires for registration, is your mobile number.
As mentioned above, the Samoa Travel Tracer uses Bluetooth to trace close contacts among its Users.
The App runs automatically in the background, keeping a record of all phone numbers you come into close contact with.
So you would need to make sure Bluetooth is turned on, whenever you enter a public place or go somewhere you’ll be near people.
There are no bar codes to scan when you arrive at places because remember, it does not have the capability to register your location.
You Don’t Need Data
The App does not use data when running in the background or scanning because it uses Bluetooth.
Bluetooth is a low-power, short-range radio wave technology that can connect and share data between electronic devices that are in close proximity to each other.
It does not need data and actually doesn’t even need a mobile connection for it to work.
“While data is needed initially to download the App, it doesn’t actually use data when it’s running or scanning,” said Taimalelagi.
Downloading the App will take up less than 50MB of data. If you’re a Digicel User, you would have received 50MB of data for free last week to enable you to download the Samoa Travel Tracer App.
“We acknowledge the assistance of Digicel, who last week provided 50MB of free data to its subscribers to download the App,” said Taimalelagi.
More Information at Press Conference
STA will be hosting a Press Conference at the Samoa Cultural Village Fale on Monday 31st January 2022 to highlight the importance of the App as a contact tracing tool, address any misperceptions and appeal to the community of smartphone users to ensure they have downloaded and are using the App to support national efforts to protect Samoa from the spread of Covid-19.
The Press Conference will include mobile service providers Digicel and Vodafone, the Samoa IT Association and members of a special taskforce leading efforts to grow the usage of Samoa’s Travel Tracer App.
So in summary:
- Privacy Is Maintained – the App doesn’t track the physical location of Users nor is it capable of tracking the location of Users.
- Download & Register – You need to register as a User after you downloaded the app. This is very important to ensure the capability of the App is utilised to support contact tracing efforts by the Ministry of Health and help keep Samoa safe.
- Low Energy Consumption – The App runs using Low Energy Bluetooth, so power consumption is low.
- Data Not Required to Use App – While data is needed initially to download the App, it doesn’t actually use data when it’s running or scanning (using Bluetooth).
- Physical Location Isn’t Tracked – The App traces or records mobile numbers of App users who come into Bluetooth range with other Users. It doesn’t track actual locations where Users come into close contact with each other.
- Keep Bluetooth On – Users will be notified that the App is scanning. If this notification isn’t showing, Users need to check and ensure Bluetooth is turned on.
So it’s really important for members of our community with smartphones to download and register as Users of the App.
More of us using the App means the tool becomes more effective in providing Health Officials with easy-to-access data that can be crucial to control and stop the spread of Covid-19 if it should ever penetrate and break out in our community.