Ontario launches two new tech tools to aid reporting, contact tracing

Ontario launches two new tech tools to aid reporting, contact tracing

It's out with the old and in with the new.

Following criticism of outdated technology systems to report and track the coronavirus, the Ontario government is rolling out two new systems in the coming months to better understand the pandemic and prepare for a potential second wave.

The new system will replace the much-criticized integrated Public Health Information System (iPHIS), an antiquated system that saw batches of faxes come in and required extensive manual data entry. The system will be rolled out in three areas in July, and see a more comprehensive launch in August. A cloud-based system built with Salesforce technology, the contract for the tool will be $20 million over four years, which includes two option years. The tool can also be used for other communicable diseases, although it will initially just be used to track the coronavirus.

The government also unveiled a new app that Ontarians will be able to download on their smartphones as of July 2. The exposure notification app was built by volunteers at the Ottawa-based e-commerce company Shopify. Ontario then customized the open source code for its needs.

The app works by tracking who an individual comes into contact with who also has the app. Using bluetooth technology, the app matches up anonymized codes based on signal strength to see who has potentially come into contact with one another, and when an individual tests positive a notification is distributed to the contacts in their history who match the criteria for who should be tested.

Government officials on background stressed that the data would be deleted after 14 days, that the information was anonymized, and that GPS information would not be accessed. The government also reached out to Information and Privacy Commissioner Brian Beamish about the app, and says it is following procedures on best practices.

The app will be opt-in only, so its effectiveness will rely in large part on a critical mass of users downloading and using the app. If that does occur, it should make contact tracing much easier and more timely. Combined with greater ease of data entry and sharing through the new Ontario Lab Information System, the government is placing a big bet on using technology to streamline and simplify how it tracks the coronavirus.

Premier Doug Ford employed several metaphors comparing the fight against COVID-19 to a war, saying the pandemic is "an invisible enemy" but that technology combined with "an army of 2,000 contact tracers" will "stop the virus in its tracks."

He suggested that the latest progress shows the province is turning the corner on what has been a difficult issue that critics have said has bogged down the provincial response. "Everything is coming together now," the premier said at his afternoon press conference.

The timing to roll out the programs is vital to the government's approach. Speaking on background, government health officials acknowledged that the rollout of the new technology coincides with a point when positive cases are on the decline, and that this ebb in caseload is a good time to build up resources for a potential second wave that health experts are braced for in the fall.

But the premier downplayed the timing as a motivating factor. "No, not at all. Our digital team in Ontario worked with Shopify, Shopify actually donated some of the brightest people they have at their company, and we work hand-in-hand with them. So this has been an ongoing process," he explained.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story identified the new system as the Ontario Lab Information System (OLIS). In fact, OLIS is the system currently in use for lab test results and the province intends to expand its use as part of the enhanced strategy. 

David Hains

QP Briefing Reporter

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