Plano-based NTT Data is helping Austin launch a digital tool for COVID-19 contact tracing

Contact tracing, the process of identifying and isolating those infected with COVID-19, is seen by epidemiologists as essential before the U.S. returns to any degree of normalcy.

And a Plano-based technology company is spearheading a push to make it happen digitally.

The city of Austin said Friday it’s partnering with NTT Data Services to launch a web application next week that’ll tell its residents if they need a coronavirus test.

“The launch of the Public Testing Enrollment Form is a pivotal point in the testing capability for our community,” Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said in a statement. “As we gather more data through widespread testing, we are provided a bigger picture of the impact of COVID-19.”

Residents of Texas’ capital city will be able to enter their symptoms in a public enrollment form and electronically schedule a test within a 15-minute window at a nearby testing site if eligible. Users will receive a one-time-use QR code to check in at a testing site as well as to securely obtain their results “which can be traced in accordance with applicable privacy rules,” according to NTT Data.

Once operational, Austin officials said the tool will allow the city to increase testing capacity to up to 2,000 people a week.

Those who test positive on the platform will get an automated email with instructions on how to prevent spreading the virus and to help them determine whether medical supervision is necessary, according to the company.

Anonymized data collected by the tool will be used to create a heat map of coronavirus cases in Austin, providing officials with the data they need to determine how best to distribute resources such as testing and hospital beds within the community. Cities like Dallas have only been able to report cases by the home ZIP code.

NTT Data told The Dallas Morning News it has received interest from other cities about the testing and tracking tool.

“We expect to roll out what we developed and implemented with the City of Austin to other communities to help combat this horrible virus," said Chris Merdon, the company’s senior vice president of public sector.

Without a technological platform like the one being developed by NTT Data, health care workers have to individually communicate with those who test positive to ask where they’ve visited and with whom they’ve been in contact.

But web and smartphone apps promise to streamline the work of health officials in tracking the spread of coronavirus in U.S. communities.

Tech giants Apple and Google announced last week they were making adjustments to their smartphone software that would enable Bluetooth-based contact tracing, raising concerns from privacy experts about the potential for unintended violations.

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