On Saturday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced measures that Israel would implement to contain the coronavirus outbreak. Among other things, he said the authorities would employ intelligence tracking tools to digitally monitor coronavirus patients through their smartphones to see where they were before discovering that they were infected and to take appropriate steps.
As the crisis intensifies all over the world, technology represents a key to fighting back – and not only for medical-related issues. As the public finds itself grappling with several questions – from how to figure out whether people had potential exchanges with others who tested positive, to what to do with children stuck at home all day with schools closed – some answers are offered by a wide range of smartphone applications.
One first virtual response to the crisis came from the Health Ministry.
Since the beginning of the month, the ministry has been offering on its website a virtual map, constantly updated with the new coronavirus cases reported in the country, including the movements of the infected people on the relevant days, listing stores and sites visited by them, as well as flights taken. A few days later, it launched CoronApp, available on both Android-operated smartphones and iPhones, to provide users with direct information about the virus and share relevant advice for those in self-quarantine.
"Digital tools are an integral part of the ability to cope with the outbreak of the virus in Israel," Esti Shelly, digital health manager at the ministry, told Ynet. "We are working to collaborate with the strong ecosystem of digital healthcare companies that exists in Israel."
Moreover, the ministry set up a group to send updates about the situation on Telegram that has more than 93,000 users. According to Walla, a similar group was also launched on WhatsApp, one of the most popular apps in the country.
An app to notify users if they have been in proximity of an infected patient was launched on Saturday by the United Hatzalah EMS organization.
Already available on Google Play Store and soon to be released on Apple's App Store, from the moment it is downloaded, the app keeps track of the users’ movements, and can therefore notify them if it emerges that they have come in contact with someone diagnosed with the virus whose itineraries are later shared by the Health Ministry. The app, called “Track Virus,” cross-checks the movements, and, if necessary, sends a notification. It cannot therefore cover the movements of users or patients that had occurred before it is downloaded.
Moreover, the information is stored in the app anonymously and not shared in the cloud system, to protect users' privacy.
“As the number of coronavirus patients rises, it becomes harder for the public to keep track of all the different places that they have all been along with the updates from the Health Ministry,” Dov Maisel, United Hatzalah vice president of operations, said. “Additionally, people often have a hard time recalling exactly where they have been and when. The app solves both of these problems.”
Starting on Sunday, tens of thousands of users will receive the necessary information regarding the whereabouts of confirmed coronavirus carriers faster, in a more up-to-date manner and with more accuracy, the creator of Track Virus, Uri Feldman, said.
“We are very excited that a large organization such as United Hatzalah has partnered with us in tracking and hopefully stopping the spread of the coronavirus by using advanced smartphone technology.”
As tens of thousands of people are stuck at home, having groceries delivered might also represent an essential need. Many large supermarket chains offer delivery through apps.
Finally, after the announcement that schools would shut down until at least after Passover, a pressing issue for many is how to entertain children at home. While experts recommend that people stay physically active, a certain amount of time spent on smartphones and TV are likely unavoidable.
To ensure that the time spent in front of a screen remains constructive, apps can once more come to help.
Among others, Dynamo, an Israeli educational app, guarantees that the interaction between children and smartphones represent an informative moment, as well as a fun one.
Every time a child opens the smartphone, the app presents them with a question on geography, math, music, language and so on, adapting the questions to the user’s age and level.
The app is available in 10 languages, including Hebrew and English. As the coronavirus crisis progressed, the developers also added special content on the virus and appropriate behaviors to maintain to contain it – to equip children with reliable and age-appropriate information.
“Dynamo addresses the parent-child-smartphone anger and frustration triangle, but from a positive and empowering place for all those involved,” Nimrod Bar-Levin, cofounder and CEO of the company said. “Dynamo provides positive added value, turning every child’s contact with a smartphone into a learning experience on the world surrounding them."