App used to curb rhino poaching being used to track Covid-19 cases

Naledi Shange, TimesLive | May 14, 2020

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What does rhino poaching have to do with Covid-19? At least one thing, it turns out.

The Cmore app that SA is using to record screening data and assist in tracking potential coronavirus cases is the same app used by the country’s game parks to help curb animal poaching.

This is according to the US science magazine Scientific American.

While Cmore is the common name for the app, its full name is the Command and Control Collaborator.

In 2019, TimesLIVE reported that the app was developed by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and its software enabled the park’s control centre and rangers to use their cellphones to track poaching incidents, sightings, carcass locations, or to track rangers out on patrol.

In 2020, as SA was hit by the coronavirus, telecommunication companies donated thousands of cellphones to the government. These were then given to community workers who were deployed into different regions to screen people for the coronavirus.

The screeners go on door-to-door visits in the communities, where they ask the inhabitants to answer questions which allow them to weigh out whether they could have the virus. The data collected during these visits is then loaded onto the app and allowed for easy tracing and data analysis.

Scientific American said the Cmore app was  altered to adapt for the screening of the coronavirus.

“The adapted programme pulls together information such as statistics about the demographic spread of the country’s population and the health data of patients who have been tested. Approximately 340,000 South Africans have had diagnostic laboratory tests for viral infections, and more than 7 million have been screened by community workers for symptoms,” the magazine said in an article published on Tuesday.

“These data are all included in a government database and fed into the new system. If an individual has been infected, health authorities get an alert, along with address information, and begin tracing those who have come in recent contact with that person. Sometimes they are aided by cellphone tracking: the nation’s latest regulations compel cellular providers to hand over the locations of possible contacts.”

The app is quite secure.

“We don’t have a securitised approach toward contact tracing, which is a safeguard,” media freedom expert Jane Duncan of the University of Johannesburg told the magazine.

The information obtained through the database is held within the health ministry. This reduced the ability of the police or state security officials to access the data for spying or political reasons.

Scientific American reported that for the whole system to work, both the data-collection technology and the house-to-house surveys needed to complement each other.

The magazine spoke to Bruce Bassett, a data scientist and mathematician at the University of Cape Town, who warned that “even if the [adapted Cmore] system works perfectly, a key challenge is likely to be integrating it effectively with logistics and operations on the ground.”

Tolullah Oni, an epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge, however, expressed optimism at South Africa’s use of the app.

“South Africa is uniquely positioned in the sense [that] it has the potential to leverage technology, as well as the experience with basics of infection control — the door-to-door stuff, the non-sexy stuff. That’s the foundation,” Oni told the magazine.

“South Africa straddles these two realities. And if you can make them work together, then you’ll stand a good chance of being effective.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa was himself impressed with the technology. Last month he visited the health department’s Covid-19 information centre which was set up to monitor and track the spread of the virus.

There he was shown how the government is able to provide close to real-time analytics and dashboards on the coronavirus outbreak per province, district, local municipality and ward.

“I was hugely impressed to see how we are able, through the facility we have here, to look at the entire country and see how we can get data and information about the incidents of infection of coronavirus throughout the country,” said Ramaphosa.

“More important is how we are able through science and technology to drill it down to provincial, district, municipality, ward level and street level as they track the people that are infected.”