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Pingdemic is on the rise

The NHS app is sending hundreds of thousands of “pings” to people in UK warning of possible contagion and asking them to self-isolate. Image credit: NHS

There are a number of tracing apps to signal a potential exposure to Covid-19, that is if you have been in contact with an infected person. In Italy we have Immuni. It has been downloaded by 12 + million people, 19,858 of them have become infected and notified the central monitoring system, generating over 100,000 “pings” (notification to potential exposures).

In the UK people are using the NHS Covid-19 app (watch the clip). It has been downloaded by close to 27 million people and people have used the app to check info over 237 million times. It has sent close to 4 million potential exposures alerts, with the number increasing every week. In the week of July 7th 520,194 alerts have been sent.

What we are seeing is that the alert notifications are growing faster than the epidemic (that is not surprising, of course, since every infected person has proximity contacts with many people, introducing a multiplying factor).

Along with the epidemic we are now facing a “pingdemic” whose economic impact is starting to become huge. When you receive a “ping” (see the picture) you are supposed to self-isolate (initiate a quarantine), wait for a few days and then have a test to exclude infection. With an R0 in the range of 2 to 3 (that is the estimated infection rate of Covid-19) an infected person has the probability to infect 2 to 3 other persons. However, that person on average in the period of latent infectivity (when infections can be passed on to other people without the person being aware) may become in contact with 100+ persons. So only 2-3 out of 100 (these are average numbers, I am using them to make the point) would actually become infected (the real number of infections is actually lower, on average, because of various precautions in place – masks, washing hands…).

Here lies the “pingdemic” problem. If the apps were able to trace all contacts (they are not!) wee would have that for every infected person over a hundred will receive a warning and a request to self-isolate for ten days or to take a test after four and, provided it turns out negative go back to normal life.

The 500,000 that have received the ping in the UK in the week of July 7th reesulted a minimum of 2 million workday loss! You can easily see the problem. Seeing a solution to it is much more complex…




About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.