Wearable contact tracing proposed as app fails to gain traction in Singapore

Just as it is difficult to accurately tally the number of COVID-19 cases in a country, it's even more difficult to trace the people a confirmed case might have had in the past 24 hours, let alone the past week or so. Human memory is not so reliable in such cases, which is why many governments and health agencies are turning to technology for help. Following the relatively low rate of adaption of its TraceTogether mobile app, Singapore is looking to what could be a simpler solution: a contact tracing wearable device.

Singapore was one of the first countries to try a technological solution to the problem of contact tracing. The TraceTogether app for Android and iOS used Bluetooth to connect with and log other smartphones running the same app to create a history of who the owner may have been in contact with. That app, however, had problems on iPhones where Bluetooth scanning is disabled for apps that are running in the background.

This, along with the complexity of setting up that app, resulted in a 25% adoption rate in Singapore when 75% is the ideal number to consider such a contact tracing method to be effective. Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore's Parliament by Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative, has suggested using a wearable device instead. This could enable the government to hand out such devices to all citizens rather than make it optional and voluntary like the TraceTogether app.

The report doesn't go into detail about the device but it could simply a wearable version of the CovidCard proposed in New Zealand. It could potentially be less intrusive when it comes to privacy and require less technical knowledge to use.

Singapore is still pushing its TraceTogether app despite the limitations and has even pushed updates that tie it more directly to users' identification numbers. The government has made no mention of adopting the new APIs that Google and Apple have launched that, in theory, should address the problems that the app has had when it came to accessing resources like Bluetooth and location in the background.