Pennsylvania’s new “COVID Alert PA” is sleek, user-friendly and an informative way to share the commonwealth’s coronavirus cases, deaths and mitigation efforts.
However, though the app was made with good intentions, it has its quirks and will not make a lasting impact on the commonwealth.
At first glance, the app is visually pleasing and easy to navigate. Graphs showing cases and deaths across the commonwealth by day and a symptom check-in feature are both effective and important.
Additionally, putting statistics and information in an application format makes this information more accessible and understandable for younger generations.
Different from the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s online dashboard, the COVID Alert PA app allows users to opt into receiving alerts if they have potentially been exposed to someone who tested positive for the coronavirus.
Through the feature called Exposure Alert, Pennsylvanians can be given alerts with advice on how to protect themselves and others from the virus. This feature was created to help “reduce [one’s] risk of unknowingly spreading the virus to your friends, family and larger community,” according to the app’s website.
However, the Exposure Alert feature of the app could be a breach of privacy. It is not required for Pennsylvanians to use the Exposure Alert feature, so if users wish not to share their information, they can still access the app’s other features.
Despite this, the feature may deter people from using the app — and if people aren’t using it, then what’s the point of it being in the App Store?
Also, if the government and other apps already have tracking abilities on citizens’ phones, why not allow this ability to function for something as important as coronavirus tracing?
According to the app’s website, COVID Alert PA “protects your privacy and personal information.”
It says the app detects if a user is in close contact with other app users through Bluetooth Low Energy technology, or BLE. This is the same technology phones use to connect to car radios, speakers and wireless headphones.
The website says the app does not use GPS or any geographical information, and it will “never collect, transmit or store” personal information. All information is said to remain completely anonymous.
The website tells users that downloading the app is voluntary, but the more people who use and download it, the more successful the commonwealth can be in stopping the spread of the coronavirus
Even if Pennsylvanians decide to not use the Exposure Alert feature on COVID Alert PA, the data is still all available in the app. Additionally, people can opt to tell the DOH how they feel daily and what symptoms they are experiencing via the app.
However, the audience using the app is far too small for statistics and information to be correct and relevant. For instance, out of the 12.8 million Pennsylvania citizens, just over 25,000 people checked into the app on Wednesday, Sept. 30 — which is less than 1% of the commonwealth’s population.
The app also lacks explanations regarding county-specific statistics, and an explanation as to why users must be 18 years or older to use the app.
Just because Pennsylvanians have the app, it doesn’t mean it is being used. And if it’s not being used by a large group of people, it’s not going to be truly effective.
Ultimately, this is an idealized method of mitigating the spread of the coronavirus.