What if the best tool to fight the coronavirus right now is not a vaccine—likely at least a year away—but a mobile phone? Smart mobile phones, app developers, and governments around the world can help deliver timely and accurate public health information and aid rigorous contact tracing to limit the spread of coronavirus.
The government of India is clearly attuned to the public health implications of mobile access. The government recently launched MyGov Corona Helpdesk, a so-called “chatbot" feature on WhatsApp, a messaging app used by over 400 million Indian mobile users. MyGov Corona Helpdesk gives the government a direct line to provide accurate information about coronavirus prevention, symptoms, and treatment.
Singapore is demonstrating that smartphones can aid with contact tracing—determining where an infected person contracted the disease, and also others who might have contracted the disease from the infected person. On 20 March, the government there released an app called TraceTogether, which allows users who contract the disease to share information about other potentially infected individuals. Singapore will reportedly offer TraceTogether as a free, open-source app that developers in India or any other country could take and adapt to local conditions.
In Taiwan, a tech entrepreneur worked with the government on the Face Mask Map, which provided real-time, location-specific data to the public on mask availability to prevent the kind of panic buying that hindered the response to SARS in 2003.
Each of these examples (just a few of many) shows how digitally-empowered citizens can access accurate information and relieve pressure on the public health authorities in times of emergency. However, citizens without access to a mobile device will find it more difficult to access and share relevant health information. This dramatically underscores that increasing mobile phone access is important not only for economic development and education, but also for containing the spread of coronavirus and other similar threats to public health.
How do we get mobile phones into the hands of more Indian citizens so that they can access these potentially life-saving apps? Our recent study found that one way might be through increased adoption of so-called open source software (OSS) like Android or Linux. OSS is free or low-cost software that permits users to use, customize, and redistribute the code without permission from or payment to any company. In the mobile context, use of OSS spares mobile device manufacturers the cost of developing their own operating system, so they can focus on what they do best: designing and building innovative new mobile phones.
In the Indian context, adoption of OSS like Android has already driven down the cost of mobile phones: the average selling price declined by more than 34% to $159 from 2010 to 2019. Many devices sell for far less.
The success of OSS in India has given developers a way to quickly and cheaply reach hundreds of millions of consumers, which they’ve already been leveraging to deliver health solutions to Indian mobile users. Take the Practo app, which helps patients find doctors, upload medical records, and order medicines to their home. Developers can create Android apps like Practo, confident of smooth performance over hundreds of millions of devices across the country. Compatibility, enabled by the agreement of mobile device makers to adhere to a common technical baseline for their devices, has been a lynchpin of the success of OSS in India, where there isn’t a single company that controls the design of most devices.
Even with dropping prices, smart mobile phones—and thus, potentially life-saving public health tools—are still out of reach for hundreds of millions of Indians, especially as the entire country is under quarantine. More needs to be done, and soon. The government of India should continue and deepen its long-standing support—the National Resource Centre for Free & Open Source Software was founded all the way back in 2004—for OSS. In particular, the government should be mindful to avoid policies or market interventions that could prevent or decelerate the rapid dissemination of public health software solutions to mobile users or otherwise harm the positive effects that Android and other OSS are generating. If OSS is able to continue its path in India, it could be a critical part of the toolbox to fight the coronavirus and other emergent public health threats.
Anindya Ghose is the Heinz Riehl Chair Professor of Business at NYU Stern School, and D. Daniel Sokol is professor of law at University of Florida