Iceland is taking an open-source approach to its COVID-19 proximity tracing

The island nation is managing to protect public health and individual privacy simultaneously.

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Since the outbreak of COVID-19, developers have been using mobile apps to spearhead tracking, tracing, and mitigation efforts. The pandemic has even led Google and Apple to join forces to track and combat the spread of the coronavirus. In Iceland, meanwhile, the Rakning C-19 app (available for local users on Android and iOS) turns to an open-source model for proximity tracing and recommending quarantine measures.

Icelandic epidemiologists are relying on the app to track potential cases and movement in the country. If a user is diagnosed with the coronavirus, the Directorate of Health sends them a notification for consent to upload their data — specifically, their GPS location. This information is then used to recommend quarantine for the patient as well as those with whom they've interacted who should self-isolate, among other interventions. Taking the collaborative nature of open source to another level, Rakning C-19 is up for anyone to see.

Tracking cases and informing the public — Icelandic officials have stated that at least 34,000 samples in the country have been tested. So far, officials have reported 1,675 positive COVID-19 cases, 918 people in full isolation, 38 hospitalized, 11 requiring intensive care, 751 recovered cases, and a death toll of six. At both domestic and foreign levels, the isolated and small island is being praised for its administrative management of the viral outbreak, particularly its emphasis on granular and frequently updated data.

According to The New York Times, the country's director of health, Kjartan Hreinn Njalsson says, "More people are now getting better than getting infected." He adds that the country is "not over the hill, but close to it," and that Iceland has a consistent supply of testing swabs, along with other medical equipment. Although the government hasn't enacted a full lockdown of public activity, health officials have relied on deCODE genetics, a subsidiary of American biopharmaceutical company Amgen, to evaluate symptomatic and asymptomatic people.

The entire approach sounds like the opposite of the one taken in United States, where the official response has been sluggish and inconsistent, despite intelligence briefings on COVID-19's potential public health and economic impact. Medical supplies are running short, and financial status tends to determine whether or not Americans can access a test.

Iceland's logistical advantage — Iceland's population is a relatively tiny 360,000, which works neatly in the country's favor. Testing a smaller number of people is naturally easier to carry out from a purely logistical standpoint. New Zealand, which is being extolled for its similarly sharp and effective COVID-19 response, also has the same advantage of a diminutive population. But what both nations have shown is a willingness to act fast and decisively.

Iceland's response also deserves to be commended for its respect for the need for public health safety while also seeking consent before sharing citizens' data. Meanwhile, in the U.S. — and other nations — arguments abound that security (or public health, in this case) and privacy can't co-exist. Rakning C-19 demonstrates that dichotomy is a false one.