In the morning on October 1st, I was innocently scanning through the haphazardly organized Settings app on my iPhone (see the still-apropos “Bad Apple #2: Alphabetize Settings in iOS,” 21 February 2018), when I noticed the Exposure Notifications option. I hadn’t checked back in since its initial release (see “iOS 13.7 Integrates Apple’s COVID-19 Exposure Notifications,” 1 September 2020), so I tapped through and was surprised to learn that New York State now has an app that’s compatible with the Apple/Google exposure notification technology. I pay close attention, but this was the first I’d heard of such an app. It turned out that I was just lucky—Governor Cuomo’s office announced the app officially later in the day. 9to5Mac has a list of all the US states and territories that are participating so far.
Getting the app proved a little more challenging. The Open App Store link brought up an App Store article that discussed the exposure notification technology and listed some apps but didn’t include the New York app it promised at the top. Hopefully, that has changed now; I can’t find the article anymore.
A search in the App Store revealed the COVID Alert NY app, and I was intrigued to see the extent to which the state emphasizes the privacy aspects of the technology and approach. Just look at how many times they mention privacy in the description. (Click an image to view it larger.)
The first screen of the app has a Learn How It Works link as well, which opens a four-screen tutorial that does an excellent job of summarizing the complex system that Apple and Google developed (for full details, see Glenn Fleishman’s “Apple and Google Partner for Privacy-Preserving COVID-19 Contact Tracing and Notification,” 10 April 2020, and David Shayer’s “Former Apple Engineer: Here’s Why I Trust Apple’s COVID-19 Notification Proposal,” 11 May 2020).
Back at the initial screen, tapping the Get Started button walks you through an explanation of why the app has to ask for COVID-19 exposure logging and notifications, presents those permission requests, and then confirms that it’s all set up.
It even offers a Share button that, when I used it to send myself a text message, generated a message and provided a link to a COVID Alert NY Web page (which continues to hammer home the privacy protections). If you’re a New Yorker and get the app, I strongly encourage you to share it broadly with your family, friends, and colleagues. (There’s an Android version as well, so you don’t have to worry about confusing your green-bubble friends with an iOS app.)
To give you a reason to load the app regularly, which is helpful for keeping the entire concept of exposure notification fresh in users’ minds, the app provides three graphs for both the state as a whole and for each county. The graphs show the percent of COVID-19 tests that have come back positive, the total number of positives, and the total number of tests performed, all across the last month.
All three numbers are useful because they show the differences even across nearby counties. For instance, I live in Tompkins County, where we had a spike in early September related to thousands of Cornell University students returning to campus. Cornell quickly brought that under control with excellent contract tracing and quarantining of exposed students, and our infection rate is back to well under 1%. The more rural neighboring Tioga County, where I grew up and which has about half the population, has notably higher infection rates. However, a look at the other graphs shows that it’s testing only a few hundred people per day, whereas Cornell’s aggressive regime of testing every student twice per week means that Tompkins County was doing more than 5000 tests most days and is now averaging nearly 10,000 per day.
The next major area of the app, accessed during setup and via a button in the bottom toolbar, is My Health Log, which helps you keep track of your own health and provide anonymized data for public health researchers. Users are encouraged to report in every day, presumably to help provide a baseline should symptoms crop up.
The final part of the app revolves around what to do if you test positive for COVID-19. The app tells you to stay at home and isolate yourself for 14 days, after which it explains that a public health representative will call with more information and ways you can get help. They’ll also ask if you’re willing to share your app’s list of close contact codes, and if you are, they’ll give you a six-digit number that triggers the upload of your codes so others can be notified—completely anonymously!—that they might have come in contact with you.
Overall, I’m impressed. The app is clear, clean, and polished, and does a fine job at giving users a reason to install it beyond the civic duty of helping protect fellow New Yorkers. I hope similar apps from other states and countries are at least as good, and if you’ve used one, let us know what it’s like in the comments.
And, of course, if you live in New York, please install and configure the app to help protect yourself, those close to you, and others in your community!