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MAPping the Future

Digital health IDs as the new currency of trust

/ 04:02 AM October 12, 2020

After seven months, we realize a clear, abrupt closure to this pandemic simply doesn’t exist. We also know extended lockdowns and waiting for vaccines (experts say they may not be accessible for all until 2023) are not sensible strategies, not while millions are suffering real economic consequences of shutdowns. Reopening societies and economies is key. Yet we cannot safely do so without a robust strategy.

It often feels like we’re living in a shared, constant, debilitating nightmare without an end in sight. Firms and households alike are paralyzed in fear and uncertainty as the economy sheds hard-earned confidence. The answer is not to blindly hope this nightmare goes away, but instead to actively learn to live with it, in spite of it.

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Coexisting with COVID means we use existing technologies to organize a safe, functioning society while the pandemic persists. In this piece, I think aloud about how we can do so by building community health bubbles backed by technology.

We start with a common, private sector-driven, interoperable digital health ID, where an individual’s medical history, PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test results, latest temperature readings at entry points, anonymized mobility data and contact exposures are all consolidated in a mobile app and updated live to an open-access database. With a QR (quick response) code, this digital health ID can serve as one’s passport not only for cross-border travel, but for participating in functioning society.

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The seeds of such capabilities are already present in Google Mobility trackers and in everyday apps like “Find My Friends,” fitness trackers and in social media geolocation. There is no need to reinvent the wheel: Mobile phone accounts can be the basis for user accounts.

The Philippines boasts high smartphone penetration at 93 percent and mobile internet penetration at 67 percent; it makes no sense that contact tracing in commercial establishments is still done with handwritten logbooks. Various contact-tracing apps are out there, including the IATF (Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases)-endorsed Staysafe.ph, which has registered about 2 million Filipinos and 3,000 enterprises since the Sept. 3 relaunch, including the country’s largest conglomerates. Likewise, various forward-thinking LGUs (local government units) have stepped up and developed their own digital apps.

Bataan’s has facial recognition and hospital bed tracking features, and a QR code is scanned upon entry into the province. Valenzuela’s ValTrace is supported by an ordinance mandating a “no QR code, no entry” policy for all establishments, beginning Nov. 16. South Cotabato province was able to export its QR technology for free to the entire Region 12, which currently has 45 municipalities and five cities mandating the QR code as a requisite for entry to commercial and government premises. To date, around 1.5 million residents and 17,000 establishments in Region 12 are registered. At this juncture, the key challenge is consolidating these technologies to scale, ensuring that they are interoperable, considering our porous provincial borders.

Ideally—with appropriate privacy safeguards installed—this app should be able to tell you whether you were near someone who was exposed, or if you have visited a COVID hot spot, with color-coded risk profiling for both individuals and locations fed into a central database. Such an app will also be able to notify you of changes to your risk profile based on your activities and recent in-person contacts, and give health information on what you ought to do to reduce your risk profile back to a safe “green.”

When scaled, individuals can be asked to present the QR code to their digital health passport before boarding flights, entering buildings, or riding public transport. Getting flagged for possessing a higher COVID risk profile would allow communities to turn people away from establishments, or countries to quarantine inbound travelers right at the border.

For this idea to work across borders, social bubbles must be methodically expanded and institutionalized in an internationally harmonized framework. First, there must be interoperability of free data exchange, with standardized specifications on what and how data is collected and shared. Second, private and public sector users of such a technology must agree on a common standard for contact tracing, testing and data reporting, which the app will use. Finally, automatic, fact-based and binding triggers for exclusion from the bubble will not only prevent diplomatic rows but also incentivize countries to act swiftly to regain control of the contagion.

I posit these to advocate a strawman ideal, cognizant that technology experts and private sector groups are better positioned to turn it into reality. I believe in starting with the imperfect to get things done. There is no need to implement this immediately on a grand, national scale, nor do government resources necessarily have to be allocated.

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On an opt-in basis, the private sector can implement their own health bubbles of employees and customers—for so long as the underlying technology is interoperable with other apps —slowly building confidence within their own circles and merging with others to form wider nets of individuals covered under the contact-tracing mechanism. Large conglomerates come to mind, considering their resources and the number of employees, suppliers and customers their digital IDs can capture under their platform.

Nonpartisan, nongovernmental groups like the Management Association of the Philippines (MAP), the Makati Business Club (MBC), and the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) can ensure interoperability or cross-functionality. Other groups that can facilitate the expansion of social bubbles are the condominium and homeowners’ associations, airline and hotel associations, and regional forums like the Asean Business Advisory Council (ABAC).

Think of this as a public-private partnership project to build ever expanding circles of mutual trust, except such trust is founded on and verified by data and contact-tracing technology. Embedding technology into the fabric of our society is how we break the vicious cycle of fear and paralysis and kick-start a virtuous cycle of trust and confidence.

Restarting life in the new normal requires us to sign a new social contract, one where health bubbles built on trust and technology form society’s architectural backbone, and where digital health IDs serve as our universal, interoperable currency for participating in a world fundamentally altered by COVID. INQ

This article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines or the MAP. The author is a former finance secretary of the Philippines and is an Asia Fellow at the Milken Institute. He is also a founding partner at Ikhlas Capital, a pan-Asean private equity growth platform.

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