An application of digital traces to be ready for Quebec

Une application de traçage numérique bientôt prête pour le Québec

Photo: Francois Mori, Associated Press
If the application gets the green light from Quebec, the volunteers will be able to get advice consistent to their level of risk of contagion.

A new technology could soon slow the spread of the coronavirus in Quebec and accelerate the return of life in society. After weeks of intensive development, the application of digital traces of the Institut québécois artificial intelligence (Mila), should be ready on the technological level at the beginning of the month of June. The research group is in discussion with governments in order to obtain their endorsement and to proceed with the launch.

The application developed in Montreal, including the name and visual identity will be unveiled Monday, is different from other similar software, as it aims to continuously evaluate the risk of infection to the user through artificial intelligence algorithms (IA). The tracing applications digital conventional are to notify the people at risk in a chain of contact in the case where one link receives a positive diagnosis of COVID-19.

“Our application is a way of communicating information between people, without identifying anyone, and above all as quickly as possible. Often, when someone is tested positive, it is already a little too late, unfortunately. Maybe it’s been four or five days that this person is walking around and spreading the virus, ” explains Valérie Pisano, president and chief executive officer of the institute founded by the researcher Yoshua Bengio.

If the application gets the green light from Quebec, the volunteers will be able to download it on their phone in order to seek advice consistent to their level of risk of contagion. To estimate the latter, a program based on AI algorithms would be crossing the data provided by the user — such as his age, his sex, his medical condition, its symptoms, and new, and a record of its contact of the previous 14 days with other users of the application.

The developers guarantee that the specific place of each meeting, its time, and the identity of the people would never be communicated to the central server. The communication between each phone and the server would be through encrypted networks.

The application would work with the Bluetooth protocol, which allows devices to detect one another over distances of a few meters. If the developers manage to bypass some of the barriers-technological, geo-location data GPS could also be collected. These would be projected on a geographic scale very crude, equivalent for example to the postal codes.

The dashboard on the evolution of the coronavirus in Quebec, in Canada and in the world

Already, a non-profit organization that was founded to manage the data. “Its governance structure will aim for the highest standards in terms of ethics, the protection of the rights of the person and the protection of privacy, argues Ms. Pisano. We would like to have a or former judge as chairman of the board of directors. “Two advisory committees will be formed for the support : the a gathering of scientific experts and in ethics, the other representatives of the civil society. The organization would be independent of the government, but would work closely with the public health authorities.

Applications of digital traces are in development around the world, and some are even already launched. This is particularly the case in Alberta, where the public can download the application ABTraceTogether since the 1st of may. However, about two weeks after its launch, less than 4 % of Albertans were using it — an adoption rate that is too low for it to be effective.

A simulator epidemiological

In the background of the application, a simulator epidemiological also feed information de-identified users and will analyze them using an algorithm of machine learning. “The model will be able to extract relations much more refined [on the COVID-19] that the information that now exists in the medical literature,” says Joumana Ghosn, the director of the applied research in machine learning at Mila. For example, the simulator can estimate the actual risks of contracting the COVID-19 for a person with diabetes of 70 years, who always wears a mask in public.

Different policy decisions could also be tested with the simulator : what would happen if, for example, all the universities re-opened their doors in September ? The developers of the Mila hope that this model fits better to reality than the epidemiological models already existing.

If the geo-location approximate contact is also transmitted to the server (using GPS devices), the developers could predict outbreaks of coronavirus in some areas before they arise. “What is happening in Montreal-North, we could see it coming several days in advance and make targeted interventions “, submitted by Ms. Pisano.


These promises, however, are not without raising doubts about the respect of private life.

“What worries me is that a lot of the work show that the strength of anonymity decreases as we include more data,” observes Stéphane Roche, a professor of information sciences and geomatics at Laval University which closely follows the development of the applications of digital traces. To work to its full potential, the proposed application by the Mila must analyze more data than an application of tracing conventional digital.

“The more an application is sophisticated in terms of technology, the more its potential effectiveness to curb the epidemic is great. [However, in choosing this avenue], there is a hand in the gear in terms of the risks to the privacy of personal data, ” says Mr. Roche, who is not against tracing applications, but believes that an informed judgment is required.

The project officials at Mila are well aware of these issues. In the interview, Valerie Pisano is a lot of emphasis on the efforts dedicated to the protection of private information. “The data will be deleted every thirty days on the phone, she said. And then when it all will be finished, the application will self-destruct. “It also stresses that the application is designed to avoid discrimination : a merchant could hardly refuse entry to the person whose odds of contagion is dubious, because the level of risk will not be represented in the application with a color or a number, but rather in the form of advice to the user.

Nevertheless, the development of the app remains delicate. This is why, as of April 1st, a special committee of the Commission of ethics of science and technology of Quebec has been formed to assess the ethical acceptability of a project such as that of Mila. After you have filed a progress report on 22 April, it is still hard at work, has assured the Duty of its president, the philosopher Jocelyn Maclure.

When asked about the evaluation of the project of the Mila, the ministry of Health and social Services of Quebec, says with regard to him to study together all the digital solutions available to combat the sars coronavirus. “Many aspects remain to be studied, including issues of privacy, and we want to evaluate the benefits of such an application in a pandemic situation, said in the written response. We are not currently in a position to announce such an application will be used or not used in Quebec. “

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