City Councilmember Ben Bartlett announces contact-tracing app to slow COVID-19 spread

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Berkeley City Councilmember Ben Bartlett hosted a virtual meeting Wednesday to discuss the creation of Coalition, a privacy-first contact-tracing app, as well as techniques for wearing face masks.

The app is the first Berkeley-made, free, contact-tracing app created to help stop the spread of COVID-19. During the event, Bartlett and Mayor Jesse Arreguín praised Coalition’s ingenuity in using technology to help others.

“These young people here from Coalition came up with a way to do contact tracing in an automated way, and it’s private and they’re local,” Barlett said at the meeting. “It helps people, it saves lives and it could even save our country, so it was a no-brainer for us to get behind them and support this.”

Garrett Kinsman, co-founder of Nodle, the company behind Coalition, said the app uses smartphone Bluetooth technology to measure the distance between smartphones. If the app finds a person was less than 10 feet away from another who has declared themselves as sick, it deploys a simple notification system.

Kinsman emphasized the importance the app places on its users’ privacy, adding that users are kept anonymous through rotating identifiers. The app will only send a user’s data to the cloud if declared infected, and the cloud is provided with limited information.

When asked about how the app prevents human suspicion, Kinsman said there is a staggered alert system. If a user has come in contact with a self-reported infected user, the alert takes place after the encounter happens.

Coalition is currently available on Google Play and will most likely be available on the App Store soon.

“We are looking to work together with cities to develop more advanced solutions and remove false positives with tests to back the solution,” Kinsman said at the meeting. “Over the course of the next few weeks, we really are looking forward to evolving the solution with the help of medical experts and local universities.”

Once the app is made fully available, the creators are looking to link those who self-report as infected to actual positive tests. Using brand new technologies, they hope to use the data to build an accurate model to correlate the strength of the Bluetooth signal with the probability of infection.

Karen Pertschuk, a South Berkeley activist leader with a graduate degree in public health, then demonstrated proper mask-wearing techniques and gave suggestions for working while wearing a mask.

Pertshuk said masks should be 100% cotton in order to prevent moisture from forming and that they should be washed after every use.

“This small step that we can each do at home has magnitudes of positive effects for everyone,” Pertshuk said at the meeting.

Contact Dina Katgara at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @dinakatgara.