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Utah spending millions on COVID-19 app though offer for free tracing still stands

Deseret News logo Deseret News 7/14/2020 Katie McKellar
a screenshot of a cell phone screen with text: A poster displaying how the Healthy Together app will use location tracking for COVID-19 contact tracing is on display during the daily COVID-19 media briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 22, 2020. © Kristin Murphy, Deseret News A poster displaying how the Healthy Together app will use location tracking for COVID-19 contact tracing is on display during the daily COVID-19 media briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 22, 2020.

SALT LAKE CITY — Prominent Utah businessman Khosrow Semnani and his son, Taymour Semnani, CEO of the tech firm Ferry, made an offer to state officials to help fight the pandemic months ago — for free.

Taymour Semnani thought his software — already used by airports to optimize traffic flow — would be perfect to help Utah track the spread of COVID-19 through contact tracing. His app, called Distancing, would use device-to-device Bluetooth to alert users when they came within 6 feet of each other. The software could also be used to help health officials track individual infections of COVID-19, if enough people used the app.

“This is an extremely unique and useful product that I have asked my son to provide countrywide to essential public service employees free of charge as a donation,” Khosrow Semnani wrote to Justin Harding, Gov. Gary Herbert’s chief of staff, in an April 6 email asking for a meeting with Kristen Cox, executive director of the Utah Governor’s Office of Management and Budget and state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn.

But nine days earlier, state officials had already approved a contract with another app developer, Twenty, at a much higher price tag: over $6 million for the first year. That includes $2.75 million for initial development and upgrades to the app, with $300,000 a month for support fees for the app’s first 1 million users.

Twenty built the Healthy Together app, which acts as a symptom checker, delivers test results and informs users about their area’s risk status.

But the contact tracing feature has fizzled.

About four months later, state officials pulled the plug on the app’s location services feature, abandoning, for now, the aim to use the app for contact tracing.

Disabled tracking

Dunn last week announced during a COVID-19 case count briefing the app feature would be turned off, indicating that privacy concerns had turned many Utahns away from using the app.

“We’ve learned over the course of the past three months that location tracking isn’t popular, and as a result it hasn’t been helpful to our contact tracing efforts,” Dunn said.

Dunn reported 58,000 Utahns have downloaded the app, and are “mainly” using it to assess their symptoms and be referred to testing. Out of over 500,000 symptom assessments, 18,000 have been referred to COVID-19 testing.

About 250 app users with a positive test result agreed to turn on location services, and of those about 130 had agreed to share their location history with contact tracers, according to health department spokesman Tom Hudachko.

“What we found is that most people, upward of 90%, who downloaded the app were willing to enable location services,” Hudachko told the Deseret News in an email Monday. “However, when it came time for people who had tested positive to share their information with a contact tracer only about 50% of them were willing to do so.”

Hudachko said health officials thought the app’s location data “would have been useful in contact tracing. But with so few people willing to share that information, most local health department contact tracers did not find it helpful.”

“Anecdotally, we believe data privacy concerns may have been a barrier to some people downloading the app,” Hudachko said. “Our hope is that by removing that barrier more people will download the app and utilize its assessment, testing and results reporting functionalities.”

‘Vastly overpaid’

To some lawmakers, including Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, and Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, who have both been outspoken critics of the state’s early response to COVID-19 and no-bid contracts that have given tech firms millions, the app made by Twenty has been a dud. Stoddard said the state should terminate its partnership for breach of contract.

“We’ve vastly overpaid for something that isn’t working,” Stoddard said, especially when another company offered the contact tracing technology for free. “And now we have a really expensive symptom checker. A really expensive WebMD.”

Harrison also said based on conversations she’s had with other app developers and tech executives, “it sounds like Utah dramatically overpaid for this” while privacy concerns persist with a company that still has “not delivered on functionality.”

“My question is why are we continuing to give this company $300,000 a month of taxpayer money when we know there are (other) needs?” Harrison said. “This is yet another example of a no-bid contract doled out by the governor’s office that is leaving taxpayers on the hook for something that is not helpful in this pandemic and enriching a company that had no expertise in this space.”

Jared Allgood, Twenty’s co-founder, defends the app, saying ever since signing the contract with the state, his team has worked tirelessly to fulfill evolving requests — and from the beginning the app’s goals weren’t focused just on contact tracing, but many other features that are currently functional in the app. He said Twenty has in no way breached the contract with the state, but rather exceeded it.

“If you look at the language in the contract, it’s very clear that there’s acknowledgment there may be changes in scope along the way ... and changes in scope affect the timing and delivery,” Allgood said, acknowledging that delays occurred as state officials asked for more features regarding area “risk zones.”

Allgood noted state officials came to him — not the other way around — for development of the app. He just responded to the call. He also argued Twenty developed “one of the most strict privacy policies” for the app, and he and state officials are “very much aligned” on protecting Utahns’ privacy.

Emails show frustrations with the Healthy Together app began early. During the app’s development, a head state technology official expressed frustrations with Twenty’s process.

“This project is all vaporware,” George McEwan, director of information technology for the state’s health department, wrote in an April 13 email to staff. “They don’t actually have anything otherwise we would have seen it already. I hope they can code faster this week otherwise someone in the upper food chain might realize this app is a joke.”

In response to a request for an interview about McEwan’s comments and the app’s development, John Angus, deputy director of the state’s Department of Technology Services, said those comments came before the product was finished, and it’s natural for differing opinions to surface during app development. Plus, he noted much of the frustration likely stemmed from many late hours spent on the app, as well as different requests coming from various state departments.

The free app

Taymour Semnani said Monday his offer for contact tracing software was still open, but he was puzzled why it’s taken so long for state officials to take it seriously.

“I understand the state moved quickly in an emergency situation, but now the state has had plenty of time to step back and re-evaluate the tools in it’s toolbox,” he aid, “and I think it’s time to make some decisions as to which tools it wants to add to that toolbox.”

Taymour Semnani said he had been in touch with Cox as recently as Monday to discuss a possible partnership to use Ferry’s software, but it was too soon to say what that would look like. He said he hopes state officials figure out a way to integrate contact tracing into an app, whether it’s through a different app or an expansion to Twenty’s app.

“From an epidemiological perspective, contact tracing is the most powerful tool to identify and fight this virus short of a vaccine, and I don’t think the urgency in implementing an effective contact tracing technology can be understated,” he said.

Cox, in response to a request for an interview about the Healthy Together app and talks happening with Semnani, sent a prepared statement saying the app’s GPS location service will be disabled Tuesday in an update.

“Any future potential use of Bluetooth technology in the app is still being considered,” Cox said.

Taymour Semnani said his app, which uses device-to-device Bluetooth, would be more accurate than Twenty’s app, which used a combination of geolocation tracking and Bluetooth, to track movements. Semnani said geolocation has a “larger margin of error” and would be more difficult to use for contact tracing.

Additionally, Taymour Semnani said device-to-device Bluetooth would have less privacy issues, since the app would only record “contact events, and we’d never take custody of the data.” And, he said Ferry’s app is compliant with Apple and Google’s white paper that lays out a framework for contact tracing applications, whereas Twenty’s isn’t.

Allgood said comparing Twenty and Ferry’s apps was “not even close to an apples-to-apples comparison,” and he argued Twenty’s app does far more than location services. However, if Ferry’s app is able to offer a quality service for free, Allgood welcomed state officials to explore a partnership with Ferry.

“Look, my respect to anybody that’s working hard trying to solve these problems,” Allgood said. “If he’s got something, that’s awesome and if it’s free then of course the state should look into it.”

As for Twenty’s services and prices, Allgood said they’re delivering a “quality” product shaped by the state’s asks. “We have 45 people working full time on that,” he said. “There’s no way to deliver that for free.”

Angus said he did a rough demo of Ferry’s technology, which showed the technology performs “very well.” But he also said Twenty’s contact tracing feature also worked. The problem, he said, boiled down to Utahns’ wariness of privacy issues.

“The technologies are very valid, but it’s more about what you’re comfortable to have on your phone and what information are you willing to share with someone else,” he said.

Privacy issues

Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, plans to run a bill in an August special session of the Legislature to tackle privacy issues with an app that uses contact tracing. The bill was put on hold during the June special session while state leaders grappled with what to do with Twenty’s contract.

“It’s tough to go back and Monday morning quarterback to try and question difficult decisions made during a difficult time, but now that we’ve had a few months to really assess the situation and look at our different options, I think it’s important for us to reassess.”

The question of whether Utah should pay the full amount owed to Twenty by contract is still under a legal debate, Spendlove said. He also said he’s working with Ferry while drafting his bill.

“We need to make sure anything that we’re doing is ensuring the full protection of individual rights and individual data, and I think we need to be really careful about that slippery slope of collecting and keeping too much personal data,” he said.

While Spendlove said he doesn’t want to decide for the governor’s office what to do, he said Ferry’s approach seemed less “intrusive” on privacy and may be a “better method” for contact tracing.

“I think it’s the right move to look at an alternative method doing this,” he said.

The aim is to find a solution so more Utahns would be comfortable to use a contact tracing app.

“I think contact tracing is one of the important parts of this,” Spendlove said. “It’s just a question we need to be really careful about.”

Dr. Joseph Miner, director of the state’s health department, said Monday a successful contact tracing app, if enough Utahns would use it, would help the state’s now overwhelmed contact tracers as Utah’s COVID-19 surge continues.

“We definitely need the help,” he said.

If state officials can address Utahns’ privacy concerns, Miner said it might encourage more downloads. And he said if a company is offering the service for free, the state might as well try.

“You can’t beat free,” Miner said.

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