A key tool to track and stop infectious diseases is contact tracing, where public health authorities identify people who have been in contact with someone with a disease so they can test, treat, or quarantine as needed. With COVID-19 spreading quickly, technology companies looked for ways to enhance traditional contact tracing methods using digital tools that could help notify people who may have been exposed.

The companies had the technology but looked to The Task Force for public health insight to bridge gaps between public health protocols and technology solutions.


Photo caption: Epidemiologists in Uganda. Courtesy of Aggrey Byaruhanga.

Our Public Health Informatics Institute (PHII), with vast expertise in health data systems, convened public health officials and technology leaders to landscape digital contact tracing tools and identify opportunities. The goal was two-fold: to develop guidance that assists public health professionals’ understanding of the current marketplace of digital tools and to ensure technology experts understood public health privacy needs and standards as they built these tools.

Within just six weeks, The Task Force team had finished its work and published a consumer report with a landscape analysis of digital tools to guide public health authorities’ decisions on their COVID-19 surveillance. As a part of this effort, PHII also produced guidance for public health authorities on exposure notification technology being developed by Google and Apple. The idea of the Google-Apple technology was simple: users could choose to enable their smartphones to exchange anonymous codes via Bluetooth with nearby phones. If someone later tested positive for COVID-19, they could enter a code and the other phones would get an anonymous notification that there had been a possible exposure.

Take a Listen

PHII’s "Inform Me, Informatics" podcast host Piper Hale interviews PHII Director Vivian Singletary on the Google-Apple project that fights COVID with cell phones.

The notice would provide information on what to do but would not provide details on when the potential exposure happened. PHII provided guidance to support public health authorities’ decisions on whether to build an exposure notification app that uses Apple and Google’s technology. As of December 2020, public health authorities in more than 50 countries, states and regions had launched exposure notification systems using the Google-Apple technology.

Watch the video to see how Washington State is using the exposure notification system

Video courtesy of the Washington State Health Department.

Scroll to Top