GIRARD, Kan. — The Crawford County Commission approved a letter of support Tuesday for a mobile application being developed locally that people would be able to voluntarily use to help with contact tracing to limit the spread of COVID-19.
John Kuefler, co-owner of the local software development company DevSquared and an instructor at Pittsburg State University, addressed the commission last week to discuss the app, which he has been working on in conjunction with PSU and the City of Pittsburg. His company has been approached by various local businesses asking for assistance with contact tracing, he said.
"And my response is ‘I don’t want to make 50 different forms for 50 different businesses around here that all do things a little differently,’" Kuefler said. "I think that’s not going to serve our purposes well. I mean it’s not going to allow us to collect useful data that’s actually going to be helpful."
One concern, Kuefler said, is security of people’s information if they are filling out paper forms to check in at work or at businesses they visit. Another concern is privacy. No one likes feeling like they’re being tracked, he said.
"And there are contact tracing platforms and solutions that are coming about from on high — from big companies, from Apple, from Google, from you know, state governments, stuff like that, but those also have that lack of trust I think because they don’t necessarily take into account local needs," Kuefler said.
"There’s no one-size-fits-all, let’s-track-everybody solution. It needs to be thoughtfully done for our locality. Because this isn’t Kansas City, this isn’t New York, this is Crawford County and things are pretty good here right now and I think we can keep them that way."
DevSquared’s app was previously "codenamed" Together Forward, Kuefler said, but was recently officially renamed Check-in Crawford County. He pointed out that there have been some issues with other contact tracing proposals in other parts of the state.
In Linn County, the county government recently faced a federal lawsuit over its May 1 order requiring businesses to turn over lists of patrons to county officials. On Monday, the Kansas Justice Institute, which had been representing the plaintiffs in that case, put out a press release following Linn County’s decision to issue a revised order allowing businesses to request a warrant before turning over those records.
"This case was about Linn County understanding that constitutional rights cannot be ignored," KJI’s Sam MacRoberts said in the release. "Even during a pandemic, we’re happy to stand up with Kansans to protect their rights and liberties."
During Kuefler’s presentation last week, County Health Officer Rebecca Adamson said she had received a call from a Topeka newspaper "asking if we are requiring businesses to make people sign in when they come in the business with their phone number because that goes against 4th Amendment constitutional rights, and I said no, we’re not doing that, there’s nothing in our county order that says anyone has to do that," Adamson said.
Both Adamson and Kuefler seemed to agree that individual businesses could implement such sign-in requirements if they chose to do so.
Kuefler clarified in an interview Wednesday, though, that he thinks the most employers should do is recommend use of the app, rather than requiring it. He also noted that in addition to its more involved contact tracing functions, the app can also be used simply for questionnaire-type screening of customers or employees to ask, for example, if they’ve recently been around someone who they knew was sick.
"My whole vision for this app and for this platform is that it’s voluntary, you know, I don’t want to force anyone to do anything that they’re not comfortable with," Kuefler said.
"That’s my standpoint," he said. "I can’t really control if that’s what employers actually do, but that’s kind of how I see it. I think more people will want to participate if it’s voluntary than if it’s mandatory."
This week, the American Civil Liberties Union released a policy paper noting that there are currently "a variety of actors who can coerce individuals into using a contact tracing app. Employers, landlords, or even private business owners may require use of the tool as a condition of employment, tenancy, or even access to basic necessities, such as grocery stores, pharmacies, and other critical services."
The ACLU paper also included a recommendation that "governments should prohibit private and public entities from making the use of a contact tracing app or technology a condition of access to employment, public transportation, housing, and other necessities and critical services, such as grocery stores and pharmacies."
Once people register with Check-in Crawford County, they can either scan a QR code or manually sign a form when they enter their workplace or a business or classroom to check in.
"There still will be options for manual check-ins," Kuefler said. "Some people will not want to put this stuff on their phone, right, some people will be very against that. That is understandable, so there will be a form that people can enter just through a computer screen or through a laptop collecting this same stuff, but the key thing is there you lose the privacy aspect when that happens, because that is the same as me filling out that paper form."
In presenting his Check-in Crawford County app to the commission last week, Kuefler also stressed that Check-in Crawford County is a non-profit venture.
"I think that mixing profit motivation here kind of corrupts the idea, so I want to make sure that’s off the table and I want to make sure that’s very clear," he said.
"The only thing we’re going to charge is for businesses with more than 10 people, so we can adequately support them, we’re probably going to charge $2 per employee. So if you're a coffee shop with 15 employees you pay $30 one time, you have the platform, you can use it forever."
While it would not result in any direct profit to DevSquared, Kuefler noted that there could eventually be various kinds of monetary incentives for people to use the app.
"We also have plans a little bit longer-term as we try to rebuild our local economy, we want to incentivize businesses to use this platform by — when consumers check in to businesses with the QR code they’ll get points for that business and businesses can use that as a marketing tool or as a tool of some kind to increase customer loyalty, deals, things like that," Kuefler said.
"So if I go into the coffee shop four days a week I’m going to get a lot of points because I’ve been a good customer and I’m also doing this at the same time. So when all of this is over we’ll be able to leave some of those kinds of things in place that the City of Pittsburg has wanted to do for a while anyway, but that is an incentive for everybody to use it as well, and hopefully it spurs some economic regrowth also."
If employers were to require their employees to use the app — despite the ACLU’s recommendation this week that governments should ban them from doing so — Kuefler said last week that "they can ask people to use the app on a QR code and the employee data will remain anonymous to the employer, so we’ve got good privacy from the employee-to-employer level as well."
It seems likely, however, that in a smaller business with few employees it would not be very difficult for an employer to determine which of its "anonymous" employees checked in at a given time, based on the shifts they are scheduled to work if nothing else. Kuefler acknowledged Wednesday that this would likely be the case.
"For a smaller employer, it’s a little harder to anonymize stuff," he said, "but those smaller employers may just choose, you know, if they don’t want to deal with the infrastructure they may just choose to keep things on paper, and that’s understandable."
Kuefler said last week, however, that scanning QR codes using an app that would encrypt the data would be a better method for ensuring privacy than using a paper sign-in form.
"I don’t particularly feel that putting my name and phone number on a piece of paper that could get lost, get taken, get swiped, have a picture of it taken by anybody, is particularly privacy-first," he said. "I think we can do better."
Users of the app will sign up with their first and last name, and can sign up for separate work and personal accounts, with a password that will encrypt all data for the app on their phone or other device.
"Unless I give my key to the health department, unless I give my key to someone else, they cannot see my data," Kuefler said.
While users of the app can keep their business and personal accounts separate, however, and personal use of the app would be voluntary, a similar possibility to employers demanding their employees use the app could involve universities and their students, as Kuefler noted he is also working with PSU, which plans to reopen in the fall.
"There’s a lot of talk about let’s screen kids for temperatures before they go to class, let’s do this, let’s do that," Kuefler said last week. "My thought is, let’s make it as painless as possible and effective as possible. Let’s stick a QR code on the door of each classroom, they scan it before they go into class, we know when they were together, if there’s an outbreak we can easily trace what group of students were exposed, done."
Kuefler said Wednesday that the question of whether universities should be able to require students to use the app was "kind of a tough one," but he would still stand by his position that for students, similarly to employees, "opt-in is probably best" rather than mandatory use of the app.
"Lot of universities are kind of grappling with this right now," Kuefler said, adding that a paper sign-in process could be another option for students who didn’t want to use the app. "But it’s not really up to me to dictate, you know, at the university level what they do."
In response to a question from Adamson last week about whether the app would track whether people were within 6 feet of each other for longer than 10 minutes, or simply that they were at the same business at the same time, Kuefler said it would provide more detailed information. The app will have the capability to not only record that users have entered a location, but also their specific location while inside using GPS technology.
"So when I check into the coffee shop, it’s going to — until I leave the coffee shop, until I leave the area — it’s going to grab my coordinates repeatedly until I leave," Kuefler said. "So we’ll have multiple data points for that snapshot in time where we can compare and we can kind of rank, you know, a high likelihood of exposure versus a very low likelihood."
Adamson also noted that Gov. Laura Kelly was asked about contact tracing apps at a recent press conference.
"One of the reporters asked her if they were going to be recommending any kind of app and she said no, they’re not, just because of some of the issues with the tracking of how well we were doing with staying at home, there was a lot of backlash on that," Adamson said.
Whether the county health department were to officially recommend or endorse the app or not, Adamson said she would like the app to include an option for people to be able to contact her department. The health department would not be in a position to enter data into the app, however, such as a positive coronavirus case, she said. A person who tested positive would instead have to enter that information into the app themselves.
"I just feel like everything entered into that app needs to be voluntary by the individual," Adamson said. She also questioned whether the county government should endorse any particular app, as there might be others competing with DevSquared’s proposal.
"The problem with all that is it completely negates the value of doing any of this, and so if we don’t say ‘This is the one,’ there’s no point in doing any of it," Kuefler said.
He added that DevSquared would be "as transparent as humanly possible" and make videos explaining how to use the app. "We’ll put the source code online for anybody to go look at," he said.
Aside from Adamson, members of the Crawford County Commission also weighed in with their thoughts on Kuefler’s contact tracing app last week.
"It seems like there’s a lot of kind of steam behind this already and that’s attractive to me, that it’s very transparent and open and public-facing already," said Commissioner Jeremy Johnson.
"I think it’s a good idea," said Commissioner Tom Moody. "I don’t think everybody will opt into it, but I think it’s a responsible thing to do."
Despite having several questions and concerns last week, Adamson said Tuesday that the issues she had brought up had since been addressed, noting that she had additionally asked Kuefler to have the app include a disclaimer that if people are severely ill they should call 911 rather than simply using the app to send a notification to the county health department.
The commission approved a letter of support for the app following a motion by Johnson and a second by Moody. The letter was necessary, Kuefler said, to get the app approved by Apple and Google. Check-in Crawford County will be available through both companies, he said, but not for a few more weeks.
"The reason that we’re trying to do this is because I want us to have resources and infrastructure in place so that we can keep moving forward" with reopening while also maintaining public health and safety, Kuefler said Wednesday.
"It’s totally consumer-driven," Adamson said in recommending approval of the letter. "It’s just like anything else, if you put an app on your phone, it’s your choice."
"It will be interesting to see how it plays out," said Commissioner Bruce Blair.