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Why one US state will have two coronavirus tracing apps

Photo by Daniel Romero on Unsplash

The news: North Dakota was one of the first American states to launch a coronavirus contact tracing app, in April. Now, several weeks into the process of reopening the state, the government in Bismarck says it will take advantage of the newly released Apple-Google exposure notification system—but that doing so will require it to run two separate apps.

That even one of the lowest-population states in the US isn't able to definitively zero in on a single solution illustrates just how difficult it is for governments to figure out what to do next—even months into the pandemic.

First mover: Before North Dakota began to reopen some services on May 1, the state released an app called Care19.

“This is an opportunity for North Dakotans to be leaders in the worldwide response to covid-19,” Governor Doug Burgum said at the time of release. “Our goal is for at least 50,000 North Dakotans to download the app.”

Six weeks later, 33,000 North Dakotans had done so. It tracks location data for residents to help contact tracing efforts.

A data dilemma: When Apple and Google teamed up to build automatic contact tracing or exposure notification systems across Android and iOS operating systems, they introduced a set of privacy-protecting rules that health authorities must follow in order to use their tech. These include forbidding location tracking, instead forcing health authorities to rely on Bluetooth.

That placed North Dakota's location-based service in a bind. Now, after lengthy discussions with Apple and Google, North Dakota will release two coronavirus tracing apps—one using location tracking, one using Bluetooth—in a move that is designed to give citizens a choice but could end up splitting the overall effort.   

The suite of two state-backed apps will include Care19 Diary, which will track a person’s location history, and Care19 Exposure, which will use the Apple-Google API to track risky contact events using Bluetooth. The two apps won’t communicate with each other or share data. North Dakota wants way more downloads, and officials are banking on the Apple-Google joint effort to drive awareness in a way they’re simply not capable of doing.

“It’s a little clunky this way,” says Vern Dosch, the leader of the state’s contact tracing team. “But we’re going to do what we have to do to protect the citizens of North Dakota.”

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