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Will Mobile Apps Maintain the Distance?

Will Mobile Apps Maintain the Distance?
01 October 2020

National Rail are now officially supporting a social distancing app in order to keep employees safe during COVID-19. As they become more commonly endorsed, how useful are apps like this?

The most common type of application used to help in the fight against coronavirus is the track and trace. In the UK, the NHS support a service designed by Serco to identify the contact a person has recently had after testing positive, and to alert others that they have been in contact with that they may need to be tested. Restaurants have begun making this an entry requirement since the updates of government guidance in the last few weeks of September.

Concerns over privacy have proven a major stumbling block that’s limiting the mass adoption of Contact Tracing apps. Surveillance at work is now becoming the next privacy battleground as businesses consider building their own private Contact Tracing systems and attempt to balance the needs of business against the rights of employees. 

Social Distancing Enhanced


Next in line for recommended applications to download are social distancing detection aids. Providing a different approach, they empower individuals with technology by letting them better understand their own social distancing practices. These are designed to alert the user when someone comes within a distance that either breaches government guidelines or personal preference in addition.

National Rail have rolled out Mind The Gap to their staff members to assist in keeping distance while working. Designed by London start-up Hack Partners specifically for National Rail, this has now been picked up by other companies.

The application works by using inaudible ultra high frequency sounds and Bluetooth to test the distance between phones, and then notify the user when someone comes too close, therefore it doesn’t require an active internet connection– however it does require other members of staff to also have the program running idle on their mobiles also, in order to pick up their signals. 

This of course means that it is no help in keeping distance from customers, or staff that are yet to make the download. Hack Partners says the combination of the technology with audio measuring gives an accuracy of between 6-8cm, and that trials  have illustrated that the high frequency sounds do not affect children, dogs, cats or hearing aids.

Work | Space App is another example that runs on Bluetooth. They also track the number of close contacts a user has (that also hold the app) for longer than five minutes within a day. Although this technology isn’t effective outside of an all-participating company or friendship circle, it comes at a time when many people are still unsettled by safety concerns with returning to work. The rule of socialising in groups of no larger than six has taken a toll on the confidence of some, and businesses have been under financial pressure trying to ready their premises for those returning from furlough.

Stay Alert

The official advice coming out of lockdown was to stay alert. Reliance on technology to manage our facilities and direct environment  is taken for granted– however, is it worth the false sense of security if it means people let down their guards while working because they assume they are protected in proximity by an app? When other employees may not even have a smartphone on them, this is certainly not a fail safe.

Pre-Covid it was a concern for employers that many were paying too much attention to their phones at work, with some taking the initiative to ask for phones to be left in bags or coats while on the clock. Will running and checking these applications encourage procrastination?

Google have taken things a step further with their browser-based utility which incorporates Augmented Reality (AR) to overlay a 2 metre radius on the user’s camera view. Whilst an interesting premise, this requires active use and is not particularly useful unless viewed through smart glasses which are not yet popularised. For a future pandemic this technology could save much of the trouble in the management of transmission rates.

Picture: a masked person on board a train looking at their smart phone.

Article written by Bailey Sparkes | Published 01 October 2020


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