AS A means to effectively contact trace individuals who may have had close contact with a Covid-19 patient, many local government units are utilizing a digital contact tracing system like the quick response (QR) code.
In Davao Region, the city government of Davao and the provincial governments of Davao del Norte and Davao Oriental are implementing a QR code system in a bid to manage Covid-19 cases in their area.
"In its simplest form, the QR system allows you to know if you could have come into contact with someone who has Covid," said John Naranjo, chief executive officer of Ingenuity, a homegrown information and communication technology (ICT) firm."
An example of this application would be, if you were at a store at the same time as a person who has Covid-19, you'll be notified that you may have been exposed and should act accordingly.
"The system does not track all your movements, rely on GPS data or other personal information, or create a giant database of everything about everyone. It uses a generic identifier, the QR code, which is loosely tied to your contact information for notification purposes. The system only knows that two (or more) QR codes were in the same place at about the same time. If one of that QR is associated with a positive Covid case, the related QR codes get notified," Naranjo said.
He added that public health officials also use this information "to assist in managing the number of potential cases in the city and provide whatever support necessary to the public."
"Ultimately, the goal of the system is to use technology to help bring the Covid cases down," Naranjo said.
In Davao City, the SafeDavao QR is the city's "official contact tracing system with the goal of managing the transmission of Covid-19."
The SafeDavao QR has come a long way since its inception.
Davao City began implementing its QR code system, SafeDavao QR (DQR), in the last quarter of 2020.
It opened the registration link (safedavaoqr.davaoct.com) for the DQR to the public on October 31.
Davao City Mayor Sara Z. Duterte-Carpio issued Executive Order (EO) No. 60 series of 2020 on November 3. The EO provides for the guidelines of the DQR. It makes the DQR registration mandatory to all Davao City residents, and non-city residents who intend to go to the city. The EO also states that "the use of a DQR shall be mandatory beginning on November 7, 2020."
However, due to the volume of people trying to get their personal DQR code, the system experienced technical issues resulting in the postponement of the mandatory use of DQR in Davao City.
In a bid to help the city and the developers of DQR, ICT Davao, an organization of information and communications technology (ICT) industry players, offered to assist in the development of the DQR.
Homegrown ICT firm Ingenuity was tapped to provide technical assistance in the development of the DQR. Ingenuity has a long track record of providing ICT solutions and developing a variety of digital products for both local and foreign clients.
"Given the expertise and track record of Ingenuity, the company was able to overcome the glitches encountered by initial solution," lawyer Samuel R. Matunog, ICT Davao president, said.
Naranjo said problems were encountered in deploying the application because the level of demand was not expected to reach the levels it did in such a short timeframe.
"With the hope of preventing further lockdowns and getting a tool into public use quickly, some scalability, security, and privacy-related concerns may not have been adequately addressed in version one. Additionally, after the application was rolled out to the public, there weren't effective mechanisms in place to communicate with the public regarding their concerns and feedback in using the application," he said.
However, Naranjo clarified that "the first version of the app was not bad." But time was not on the initial developers' side. Hence, problems were experienced in the initial rollout of the DQR.
"Anytime you try to quickly provide solutions under exceptional and changing conditions there will be problems. From a technical standpoint, the first version of the app was not bad, considering the time frame. It was built by a group of talented developers from the local community wanting to help their community," Naranjo said.
Due to the glitches, the City Government of Davao announced on the SafeDavao QR Facebook page that the safedavaoqr.davaoct.com was temporarily shut down on November 4, 2021, due to a surge in traffic.
During one of her interviews on the Davao City Disaster Radio last year, Duterte-Carpio said the site was catering to thousands of visitors.
With the temporary shut down of the site, the developers began working on improving the DQR system.
"The initial team of developers did a good job in developing the application but it required a cross-functional effort in actually deploying, maintaining, and servicing the application. The initial development team, ICT Davao, Ingenuity, and the City Government worked together to address all these issues and re-introduce the new SafeDavaoQR system as quickly as possible," Naranjo said.
Naranjo said they encountered two "key challenges" in the development of the DQR -- (1) managing the needs and requirements of the different public and private stakeholders involved in the project and (2) system scalability.
He added that ICT Davao coordinated and communicated information and resources between its members, the city, and ultimately the public.
"With inputs from Mayor Sara and her team, and guidance from the initial team that developed the QR system, Ingenuity proposed and implemented a software engineering process that addressed most of the issues, and re-launched the system in less than 30 days," Matunog said.
As to the second challenge, Naranjo said they wanted to find out how they could build and design a system that needs to process a very large number of requests in a fairly short amount of time.
"The initial developers did a good job of writing the first version of the application but there were issues when the application went live because the demand was much higher than anticipated," he said.
The initial registration site of the DQR was receiving over "50,000 requests coming into the system at any given time which caused the system to become slow and unreliable."
"Most local software projects don't get this kind of demand let alone all at the same time. We think the initial development team received a lot of public ridicule for this which was kind of unfair because it's also very hard to plan for an event that most people don't have any experience with," Naranjo said.
He said Ingenuity, with its experience in a wide variety of local and international projects, was able to work with the initial development team and upgrade the application and the supporting systems to handle this demand.
"It was really a group effort between local industry, trade groups, and the city government in getting the system up and running," Naranjo said.
At present, Ingenuity handles the development, maintenance, and training activities around the QR system under the guidance of City staff and officials. Meanwhile, the current role of ICT Davao, Inc. is to provide feedback and advice to the development team and to the Steering Committee, which meets weekly.
Back on its feet
Once some of the issues were fixed by the team of the city, ICT Davao, Ingenuity, and the initial developers, DQR registration for establishments resumed on November 12, 2020. Then on November 16, 2020, registration for individuals resumed.
"There were very few/minimal issues with the second rollout," Naranjo said.
It should also be noted that the website has now been changed to safe-davao.com from safedavaoqr.davaoct.com.
On December 4, 2020, the DQR Mobile App Scanner was made available for Android phone users. The app can be downloaded through the Microsoft App Center.
By this time, the city government of Davao has gradually implemented the QR code system at checkpoints, city government offices, and some commercial establishments.
On February 3, 2021, Duterte-Carpio issued EO 02 series of 2021, which provides the guidelines on the strict implementation of the DQR. Under the new EO, all establishments and offices in Davao City must implement the scanning of DQR code of all individuals entering and exiting their premises.
"Based on the pilot testing, the system can now function for the purpose it was developed, thus, mandatory implementation of its use can now proceed," Duterte-Carpio said in her EO.
On February 22, 2021, the DQR Mobile App Scanner was made available on Google Play Store for Android phone users and Apple App Store for iPhone, iPad phone users.
One of the biggest issues raised by Dabawenyos when it comes to the DQR is its data privacy.
Naranjo said users of the DQR can be assured that their data is kept safe.
"Data protection and privacy controls are key aspects of the system. As with any crisis, effective information management is critical. In consultation with industry partners, legal counsel, and City officials, the system was developed in a way that complies with all the necessary privacy and security controls required to safeguard personal information and provide reliable information in support of the city's Covid efforts," he said.
Naranjo added that "the City Government of Davao is the custodian of all the data residing in the systems and Ingenuity has access to only the data required to perform its services."
"Ingenuity is not just a partner in the development of the system but, we are users of it as well. Data privacy and safety issues are as important to us as it is to the public as we are all residents of the city," he said.
"The City Government of Davao shall ensure that the personal information collected are used only for the purpose of contact-tracing measures or to identify the person who was in close contact with someone who is infected with the Coronavirus disease (Covid-19), as they are considered to be at higher risk of becoming infected themselves, and of potentially further infecting others, and for the management of asymptomatic and symptomatic persons in the City," the city said.
It added that it has "put in place appropriate physical, organizational, and technical controls to maintain the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of your personal data."
"All personal data collected for the purpose of contact tracing measures and management of probable, suspected, and confirmed Covid-19 patients shall be stored only for as long as necessary or until the purpose for their processing no longer exists," the city said.
It added that once we reach the time when the DQR will not be used anymore, "the City Government of Davao shall dispose your personal information in a secure manner in order to prevent further processing, unauthorized access, or disclosure to any other party."
Established to be used to intensify Davao City's contact tracing capabilities, the DQR started rolling out its contact tracing features in January.
On January 15, 2021, it was announced on the SafeDavao QR Facebook page that those who were registered with the DQR will be notified if they have been in the same area with a Covid-19 positive patient.
The DQR said in an advisory that "the message shall contain symptoms to look out for and what you need to do when you experience such symptoms."
Duterte-Carpio said this new feature of the DQR will allow possible close contacts of the Covid-19 patients to act immediately and do their part in stopping the spread of the virus.
"Para kung man, inkaso, affected siya -- meaning natakdan siya, dili na mu-spread or mudaghan [ang kaso] (In case the person is infected, we are able to prevent them from spreading the disease)," she said.
Lemuel Ortonio, the head of the Human Resource Management Office (HRMO), said in a statement on February 26 that they have already made improvements to the push notification of the DQR.
“Updated na atong message in Visayan. Naa na pud didto ang place, date, and time kung kanus a nila naka-contact ang index case (We have updated our messages in Visayan. It has also the place, date, and time when they had contact with the index case),” Ortonio said.
The city government said in a statement that the app has an additional feature that detects the QR code of a Covid-19 positive person upon scanning.
"When a positive case scans its DQR in an establishment, the scanner will detect and notify that the person is blocked or is not allowed to enter the establishment," the city government said.
Ortonio said they are also improving the DQR system to also block persons who are supposed to be under quarantine.
“For now, ang mga naka-block pa lang ang katong mga positive cases na currently na-record na sa atong mga contact tracers. Ang katong blocking nato sa currently in quarantine, ginahan-ay pa sya sa atong DQR web development team in coordination with our City Information and Technology Center (For now, only the positive cases are blocked and recorded by our contact tracers. Our blocking for those currently in quarantine is a work in progress by our DQR web development team in coordination with our City Information and Technology Center),” he said.
Naranjo said at its core, the DQR system is a tool to help maintain and grow economic activity during a public health crisis.
"By accurately identifying and notifying people who may have been exposed to Covid, it allows people to work and take care of their family and basic needs at a reduced risk. Without such a system the economic impact to the city could have been far worse," he said.
Ortonio said the DQR system allowed the city to expand its contact tracing capability, which allowed it to improve its management of Covid-19.
“With the use of DQR, mas na-expand nato ang capability sa atoang contact tracing team na mas maka-reach og more people na could have been in close contact with a positive case. Mas napadali sya karon because dili na kinahanglan one by one tawagan sa atong contact tracing team ang mga casual contacts, katong mga F2 ug F3. Karon with the push notification, generic na atong message na mahatag sa ilaha and uniform ang message,” Ortonio said.
(With the use of DQR, we expanded our contact tracing team’s capability to reach more people who could have been in close contact with a positive case. It is easier now since they don’t have to call casual contacts one by one, the F2 and F3. With the push notification, our message is generic and uniform.)
As of March 7, 2021, there are a total of 2,197,312 individuals with a DQR code. Of this number, 69 percent or 1,519,019 are residents of Davao City while 31 percent or 678,293 are non-residents. A total of 80,539 establishments have registered with the DQR.
Naranjo and Matunog both said DQR getting back on its feet after a few stumbles was a joint effort between the public and private stakeholders involved in this project.
Naranjo said, "the is a once-in-a-lifetime event for most people and the ability of different groups to work together under less than ideal circumstances and deliver a working solution for the city has been one of the biggest successes in this situation."
"Despite the initial stumbles, we would consider the deployment of Safe Davao QR system a big success. As far as we are aware, there has been no service that has been developed and deployed, city-wide, in such a short time frame, in a crisis situation. We've all settled into the 'new normal' by now but, we still face a public health crisis and in the early days there were a lot of unanswered questions. It is, under those circumstances, the project should be viewed," Naranjo said.