Returning Austin from pandemic lockdown to some measure of normalcy will require improved contact tracing, the practice of identifying and isolating anyone infected with COVID-19.
But with an insufficient supply of testing kits and a limited amount of manpower, this is easier said than done. Tech giants like Apple and Google have announced their own solutions—all of which seem weeks or months away from availability—that come with concerns about security and the use of personal data.
Austin won't have to wait long. City officials recently rolled out a new set of digital tools focused on making this process more efficient.
Austin residents who suspect they might be infected with COVID-19 can now download a mobile app or visit a dedicated website to determine if testing is necessary after answering a series of questions, the city of Austin announced last week. The system is part of a comprehensive platform built by Plano-based technology firm NTT Data, a Fortune 50 company.
"The reality is, this happened very quickly. We really went from concept to implementation in less than three weeks," said Chris Merdon, NTT Data's senior vice president of public sector. The software was built using Salesforce's PaaS [platform as a service], marking the first time the company has used it for COVID-19 contact tracing.
"The advantage of Salesforce is that it's able to scale quickly," Merdon said, making it easier to expand the city's contact tracing initiatives as necessary.
Prior to the platform being implemented, a physician would screen patients to decide if testing was needed. Then, further coordination was required to determine when and where to send people to testing sites—not to mention contacting those infected or potentially exposed. But now most of those steps have been automated, allowing city officials to focus their efforts elsewhere.
"If a recommendation to get tested is made, you are provided with a QR code and directed to the nearest of five testing centers located throughout Austin," he explained, adding that the platform is able to schedule appointments every 15 minutes. After being tested, people are automatically sent an email notifying them when results are available through the contact tracing website. Those who test positive will also receive instructions on what to do next, and will be prompted to fill out a survey to help identify who they may have come into contact with in the past few days or weeks.
In addition to speeding up the screening process, the new platform will allow officials to more easily find infection hotspots and better distribute limited resources like test kits or personal protective equipment where needed. Austin Public Health officials anticipate initially testing up to 2,000 people per week. That figure is expected to grow as the supply of test kits, and the number of labs processing results, increase. But the city wouldn't be able to ramp up without the new contact tracing platform.
Security and privacy concerns
Much of the discussion about contact tracing technology has centered around the partnership announced April 10 between Google and Apple to produce a comprehensive solution that regional health organizations can connect to their own efforts. This has caused concerns about security and privacy of personal data, despite claims by both companies that such data would not be harvested or used outside of the COVID-19 contact tracing efforts.
Merdon said that protecting personal information was at the top of the list of priorities for the city and for NTT Data. The city's platform is fully encrypted and HIPAA compliant, with data stored on a FedRAMP-certified data center at Salesforce. He said the overall approach to the city's platform is also completely different from what Google and Apple are building.
"We are partnering with government to jointly develop the [platform], while the data itself will actually be owned by the government," he said. "The Google/Apple model is a little bit different because they are developing the application themselves without a government partner. They're retaining ownership of the data and then making it available to government partners."
The Google-Apple approach to contact tracing involves using Bluetooth technology from smartphones to track when people may have encountered one another. But participation requires downloading an app and opting in, to some degree.
Justin Harvey, CEO and founder of Austin-based Spatial Cinematic, said that the data being collected by Google-Apple's platform doesn't include locations, only contacts. Since each smartphone has a unique identifier, what's happening is that the platform will log when your smartphone comes within a specific distance of another smartphone. People typically carry their mobile devices everywhere, so this could provide a more accurate and comprehensive way to track and identify those exposed to the virus. Collected data is stored on a smartphone rather than a central database.
"The only data that's leaving the device is data from someone who has self-reported as positive," Harvey said.
- Plasma from Austin COVID-19 survivors may be used to treat ICU ... ›
- Coronavirus cases migrate south and east as predicted, but ... ›
- Coronavirus testing rates in Austin mean 'the only thing you know is ... ›
- Fabric face coverings will be 'longstanding requirement' in Austin ... ›
- Austin ER visits plummet over coronavirus concerns - austonia ›
- Questions about COVID antibody protection put herd immunity theory at risk - austonia ›
- FDA OKs at-home COVID test kit from Austin-based Everlywell - austonia ›
- City, county to share names, addresses, demographics for positive COVID-19 tests in contract tracing effort - austonia ›
- Why contact tracing doesn't work in Austin - austonia ›
- Google delays returning to Austin offices as COVID-19 spikes - austonia ›
- Google engineers struggle to be productive working-from-home - austonia ›
- Texas joins Trump administration's lawsuit against Google - austonia ›
- The CEO of Dropbox is planning a move to Austin - austonia ›
It's matchday! Austin FC—Austin's first major league sport team—kicks off its debut season in Los Angeles today after years in the making. We know how much this means to our beloved city and are taking you along with us as we journey to LA!
Austin FC writer Claire Partain and I are excited to bring you game-day coverage straight from the City of Angels. Check back here for updates, and visit our socials: @austonianews for the latest.
~1 p.m: Los Verdes in LA
(Rigo Rodriguez/Los Verdes)
Austin FC supporters are making their presence known in LA, including the Los Verdes group.
Los Verdes members started having match-day fun around the area this morning with brunch. We'll be joining them about an hour before the game outside the stadium to share some of their excitement. We'll post immediately to Austonia's Instagram.
11:45 a.m: We landed!
View from hotel room where we're staying; the stadium digital sign can be seen in the right corner. (Sonia Garcia/Austonia)
Switching over to pacific time, we're here and it's almost like no time went by. It's 9:45 a.m. here.
We've been in contact with Los Verdes, an Austin FC supporter group, who is also here in LA counting down to kickoff.
8:20 a.m: LA bound
Like many of you, we've been looking forward to this moment for, let's just say, a very long time. Today, we woke up bright and early, headed to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and hopped on a flight to LA.
A gloomy day in Austin with a very quiet airport, we're headed to sunny skies in California.
As we wait for the game to start at 4:30 p.m., check out Claire's preview of the game with a predicted lineup and timeline of the long journey to get here.
Years before the city of Austin went Verde, thousands of the city's soccer fans formed a supporters' group—MLS in Austin—for a team that didn't even exist yet.
Now, as the team's catchphrase suggests, those same fans are #LISTOS as they prepare to see their team on national television at Austin FC's debut on Saturday.
What to expect
The team will face a significant opponent in LAFC, who is projected at No. 2 in the league's power rankings. Austin FC currently sits at No. 21.
"LAFC has one of the best attacking teams in the league," Head Coach Josh Wolff said. "They will punish you. They've never been shy of putting up goals, and again, I expect them to be one of the best teams in the league this year."
The club has lived up to Wolff's words: in just their second season of existence, LAFC took first in the Western Conference and were Supporters' Shield winners in 2019.
Austin FC will need to hold off LAFC captain Carlos Vela, a versatile winger/attacking midfielder who won the Most Valuable Player title in 2019, as well as high-scoring forward Diego Rossi.
Austin FC starting lineup vs. LAFC
Meanwhile, LAFC will face challenges in DP Cecilio Dominguez and midfielder Alex Ring, the former NYCFC "ringleader" who wears the captain's armband for his new team. We still don't have any updates for starting forward Rodney Redes, who may or not be playing Saturday due to a "ding" on his knee.
If Redes is fine, we think he'll stay at forward, where he's been excelling throughout preseason. If not, a more experienced Kekuta Manneh might take to the pitch in his stead. Midfielder Jared Stroud is also in the running after he went in for an injured Redes against San Antonio FC on April 10.
While Captain Alex Ring and DPs Tomas Pochettino and Dominguez are shoe-ins for the starting lineup, some other positions are up in the air.
Twenty-year-old Daniel Pereira, Austin FC's No. 1 SuperDraft pick, has done even better than expected in preliminary scrimmages. He's still young, however, and Austin FC recruited him more for his depth than immediate starting appeal. If Pereira doesn't start, it's likely to be Diego Fagundez who takes the starting spot.
Another young potential starter comes in 22-year-old Jhohan Romana, a sturdy defender who has shown inconsistency in preseason. The backline is a clear weak spot for the team so far, and while Romana shows promise, Wolff may look for experience in Julio Cascante for their first starting lineup.
Finally, goalies Brad Stuver and Andrew Tarbell are neck-and-neck in the race for a starting spot. We put Stuver on here for his preseason performance, but neither would be a surprise as starting goalkeepers.
How we got here
It's hard to put into words how monumental it is for these supporters to see their own team one day away from its historic opening match, but the excitement can be felt across the city.
To put things in perspective, here's a timeline of events that brought us here, from "MLS in Austin" all the way up to Saturday's opener.
Where to watch
While Austin FC's first season will officially be underway, their inaugural match will be nearly 1,500 miles away from their home city.
That's no problem for some fans, including those in Austin FC fan group Los Verdes. A group of dedicated supporters are going to the West Coast to welcome their team into the stadium. While LAFC isn't officially allowing Austin fans in due to COVID protocol, some are still searching for a way to watch their beloved team take the pitch for the first time.
Meanwhile, thousands of dedicated fans are also staying home to support their club. Austin FC's first official watch party is sold out with over 1,000 RSVPs, and Austin Anthem is holding a 1000 plus-person watch party as well. For a full list of Austin FC watch parties and participating pubs, click here.
For those staying home, the match will be broadcast nationally on FOX and FOX Deportes at 5 p.m. on Saturday.
Don't miss out on the game!
- Could more pro soccer be on the way to Austin? Andy Loughnane ... ›
- Matthew McConaughey and Will Ferrell go head to head in Austin ... ›
- Austin's Latino's feels "close to home" with Austin FC - austonia ›
- Before kickoff: the ultimate guide to all things Austin FC - austonia ›