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Column: AlohaSafe app is coming, but Hawaii needs to use it

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Ready or not, tourists are coming, schools are moving toward in-person classes and businesses are reopening. Hawaii is at a critical crossroads between the fight against COVID-19 and the fight for its economic survival.

We’ve done surge testing to show limited spread in the overall population. We’ve identified communities at greatest risk, and clusters of contagion, and are working on containment strategies.

For the average person the best defenses remain masks, frequent hand washing and social distancing. For those who still end up sick, there’s contact tracing.

Tracking where an infected person has been, and with whom they have interacted, remains an important part of our pandemic response, especially as we stumble toward reopening.

Yet the state government’s efforts to do contact tracing is strained: undervalued early on, underfunded even now, ramping up only thanks to a motley coalition that knew that more had to be done.

Fortunately, there are apps for that.

There have been several independent efforts to use apps to address the pandemic, from AlohaTone’s text-based notification system for businesses to Sustain Hawaii’s comprehensive PERSEUS platform. The University of Hawaii has an app for students, and Bank of Hawaii made one for local businesses.

But what we’ve needed is an app that can take advantage of the unprecedented exposure notification system jointly developed by Apple and Google. And that requires coordination with the state’s primary public health agency, the Department of Health.

I lamented last month that such coordination was unlikely, given the other crises that the DOH is facing. But against all odds, DOH-sanctioned contact tracing apps actually exist.

They, too, started as an independent effort, a crowdsourced web survey called AlohaTrace that collected daily symptom reports and provide anonymous, aggregated data to researchers and public health officials.

After months of work the volunteer-led, public-private initiative has built two mobile apps for both iPhones and Android phones called AlohaSafe Story and Aloha­Safe Alert.

AlohaSafe Story is simple and available now. Based on the open-source PathCheck GPS+ system, it’s a private digital diary of the places you’ve been. The app doesn’t know who you are, just where you are, and data doesn’t go anywhere without your consent. If you never get sick, AlohaSafe Story has nothing to do.

AlohaSafe Alert, coming soon, is the more powerful and important app. Not only does it not know who you are, it doesn’t care where you are, either. Instead, it keeps track of other smartphones that it has been near based on anonymized Bluetooth signals.

With AlohaSafe Alert it becomes possible to send very specific notifications to people that they may have been exposed to COVID-19. Again, it doesn’t know one person from another, just that their phones were in close proximity. But whether you crossed paths in a grocery store or an office, if your contact was within the window of contagion, you’ll be notified and be able to quarantine and get tested to help keep the community safe.

The Department of Health will confirm cases before triggering the device alert chain — all without the DOH, or Apple or Google, knowing anything about you.

If you agree that contact tracing is an important part of containing COVID-19, this is the best way you can help.

Imagine that you were told you were exposed. Could you, off the top of your head, provide a human contact tracer with a list of all the places you’ve visited and a list of all people you spent time with? Even the people you didn’t know, like in line at the bank?

Only an app can do this reliably, without naming any names, rather than opening up your address book to an overworked government employee.

AlohaSafe is private, accurate, timely and trusted by a broad local coalition that’s interested in getting Hawaii back on track safely. Having looked at every great solution offered up to date, I support it as well.

The more people who use AlohaSafe, the more effective it will be. Look for the apps in your app store, and help install greater resilience in Hawaii.

Ryan Ozawa is communications director for local tech company Hawaii Information Service. Join his open tech chat room at

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