Contact Tracing for Dummies

Last week, in an unprecedented partnership, Apple and Google released the first version of the Exposure Notification API. This technology will allow public health agencies to send you an alert if you’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

The question is: Will people use this potentially life saving technology?

I get it. Everyone is concerned with privacy, big brother and civil liberties. So before anyone starts to dust off their soapbox, let’s get up to speed on how the technology actually works.

Imagine that everyone you come in contact with, you give a tiny magic crystal to. They all look the same, and nobody can link you back to that crystal once you give it to them. Now one day you test positive for COVID-19 and decide that you want to let everyone you’ve been in contact with know. You cast a spell and all the magic crystals that you gave out all turn red, alerting everyone that they have potentially been exposed and to take precautions. They don’t know who the glowing red crystal belongs to, they just know they’ve been exposed.

That’s how it works. It’s brilliantly simple, anonymous and entirely opt-in by each individual.

I don’t want my location tracked!

The technology isn’t tracking your location and in fact location data PLAYS NO PART IN IT. It doesn’t need to. In fact to even use the API, apps must have Location Services turned off to further enforce this policy.

Honestly if you’re reading this on Facebook, LinkedIn, an iPhone or an Android.. if you use Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or Youtube, you have zero grounds to complain about privacy, you just don’t know it. If a product is free, YOU are the product.

I don’t want my data in the cloud!

Contact tracing data is only stored on a user’s device and is only processed on a user’s device.

But privacy?

Privacy is the tentpole of this technology. The Temporary Exposure Keys are randomly generated, encrypted bluetooth signals. Using WiFi at Starbucks is more dangerous.

But I don’t want to help my community!

Nobody is forcing you to use it. It’s all opt-in and you can decide to download the apps (when they’re ready) or not.

At A Glance

  • The entire system is opt-in
  • Other applications for contact tracing will be allowed in the App Stores; they can adopt Apple and Google’s API, but they must remove all Location Services features and adopt the privacy frameworks of the Apple and Google API
  • Contact tracing data is only stored on a user’s device
  • Contact tracing data is only processed on a user’s device
  • Public health agencies can define what constitutes an exposure event
  • Public health agencies can determine the number of exposure events a person has had
  • Transmission risk of positive cases can be factored into the definition of an exposure event
  • Public health agencies can contact exposed users based on a combination of the API and data that users voluntarily choose to input into the app
  • No news to announce yet on whether Apple will promote these applications, such as in the App Stores

Closing Thoughts

I hope when these apps become available you consider the benefit you’ll be providing to the community. It doesn’t cost you money, time, privacy, security, liberties or anything else. The only thing it costs you is the interest in protecting our communities.

Further Reading:

Are You Swimming Naked?

On April 1, a researcher at the Centers for Disease Control emailed Nevada public health counterparts for lab reports on two travelers who had tested positive for the coronavirus. She asked Nevada to send those records via a secure network or a “password protected encrypted file” to protect the travelers’ privacy.

The Nevada response: “Can we just fax them over?


AP News published an article yesterday describing the absolute train wreck of the data supply chain supporting the COVID-19 response and guiding decision making. While it’s no surprise that many (most) organizations are running on legacy, and badly outdated systems, it’s rare to see the impact of such widespread technology debt exposed the way this pandemic has done.

“You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.” — Warren Buffett

Well, the tide is out. Right now, data about this pandemic is critical to be accurate and up to date. It turns out that most state and local health departments still rely heavily on faxes, email and spreadsheets. This has seriously impacted the ability to gather and analyze data that peoples’ lives depend on. It’s exposing a symptom of a vast problem faced by most companies, even if the negative consequences aren’t as dire.

“The CDC during this entire pandemic has been two steps behind the disease,” Dr. Ashish Jha

Additionally, the White House has partnered with Palantir, in an effort to build out its data collection platform HHS Protect Now. Vice President Pence asked 4,700 hospitals to provide numbers on test results, patient loads, hospital beds and ICU capacity… daily. This is great in theory but in practice this has utterly overwhelmed already overworked hospital staff with administrative work.

Up to half the lab reports submitted for public health case investigations lack patient addresses or ZIP codes, according to a May 1 Duke University white paper co-authored by Mostashari.

Let’s face it, working to solve this problem while it’s happening is a monumental task. The solution is built of a few components, core of which are modern software systems. The implementation, nationally, is a different story.

The real lesson here is in how this relates to YOUR company. 

While your company is likely not using faxes these days (seriously), you are almost certainly relying on emails and spreadsheets as core components of your operations.

Do any of these symptoms hit home?

  • Email and spreadsheet overload
  • Double data entry
  • Lack of real-time dashboards, data and reporting
  • Lack of automation
  • Paper-based systems

Of course they do. For a moment consider the risks:

  • Cost of maintaining old systems
  • Wasted time & effort that could be spent on creative work or new business
  • Compliance or regulatory issues
  • Inability to work remotely
  • Scalability challenges
  • Security risks

Paper based and manual systems are NOT an option any longer. Businesses that don’t agree will be rendered obsolete. Here are a few lessons learned from the story above that you should consider for your business.

  • Legacy systems cost you time and money
  • Collecting data cannot increase the burden on the company
  • Collecting data must be foolproof
  • Data must be standardized and actionable
  • Automation must be applied to maximize efficiency

Don’t swim naked. (In business only).


If you’d like to chat about a technology strategy, systems improvement or software solution I’d love to have a conversation.

A 100 year old productivity method that is still bulletproof.

In the interest of efficiency, I’m going to make this a short post. I’m always interested in finding effective ways of increasing productivity with systems, frameworks, apps, etc. I’ve read about this 100 year old method many times and somehow just ignored it, maybe it wasn’t new or novel enough. That was a mistake. If you’re looking for a simple productivity system without bells and whistles, that just works, you won’t be disappointed.

The method is called the Ivy Lee Method, named after the famed productivity consultant hired by Charles M. Schwab as the president of Bethlehem Steel Corporation. More history here thanks to James Clear.

It’s as simple as this: Before you leave your office or shut down your work for the day, plan your most important tasks for tomorrow. That’s pretty much the gist of it.

The Basic Ivy lee Method

  1. At the end of your workday, write down the six most important things you need to do tomorrow. No more than six.
  2. Order your six tasks by priority.
  3. When you get into your work tomorrow, start on task #1 and don’t move onto another task until the first is complete.
  4. Do the same with the rest of the list and at the end of your day, transfer any unfinished tasks to your new list for tomorrow.
  5. Do this every day.

It’s simple, ruthlessly effective and easy enough to not get bogged down in systems, apps, or anything that you need to manage beyond a sheet of paper every day.

Adapting for Today

100 years ago I have to think that people’s days were less fragmented. Business moved slower, communication moved slower, emails, texts and calls didn’t slam into them the same way they do today. It’s a constant battle to stay focused in a world fighting for bits of your attention.

To make this simple system work for me I’ve added a simple tweak.

  • Estimate the time needed to complete each task and note that on your list.
  • Add an entry into your calendar for each task, for the estimated duration.

This small addition makes all the difference and puts up guard rails on your day. Now just commit to your calendar and hit those goals.

Smarter, Faster: Gmail Nirvana

Smarter, Faster by Lithyem: Gmail Nirvana

I’m always amazed at how overwhelmed nearly everyone I know and respect are by their inboxes. People who are absolute rockstars in life and business are brought to their knees by the oldest digital tool around. In the last few weeks I’ve had half a dozen people ask me how I manage to get to Inbox Zero every week – here you go.

Note, Inbox Zero is not a goal I set, it’s just a result of the systems and tools that I use to be incredibly responsive in communication and keep tasks & conversations organized.

The main tool in my arsenal is FollowUp.cc. It’s built for Gmail, works in Outlook but really shines in Gmail. There are a lot of similar tools (Boomerang, Gmelius, etc.) but for me this one checks all the boxes. Continue Reading