Ryan Christoffel, writing at MacStories:
Today Apple released what is essentially a COVID-19 update for iPhones. iOS 13.5 includes several features specifically designed for our current global pandemic, including exposure notifications, mask detection for bypassing Face ID, and a new prominence setting for FaceTime, along with a nice new Apple Music sharing feature optimized for Instagram Stories. With WWDC and iOS 14’s reveal only a month away, this is likely the last major update to the current OS release cycle.
This update is no doubt going to be known as the COVID-19 update, simply because of the exposure notifications. But seeing as we don’t have an app that supports that currently here in the UK, it’s really just the “Apple Music x Instagram” update for us. Which is totally fine with me. Because I really like how it’s been done, and it looks great!
Because of the current situation with COVID-19, I’ve been working from home. It’s been quite some time as well, I think about 9 weeks so far. Which is probably slightly longer than most, but that’s because my company enforced remote working (where possible), around 2 weeks before the UK went into lockdown. As you can imagine, I’ve found some things about remote work enjoyable, and also quite a few things that I actually prefer about a physical workplace.
But just for a bit of background information: I work as a software engineer, mainly as a mobile developer, but I’ve also built various REST APIs, and worked on SSO while I’ve been at my current job. Right now, I’ve actually been going through a lot of training, as we’ve been bought by a much larger company, so we’re adapting a lot of our software to their tech stack. But essentially, everything I’m doing is possible from home.
However, I’ve noticed that while the main chunks of my work are possible from home, there’s a lot of extra things that I do that just aren’t as easy. Or sometimes they’re not more difficult to do remotely, they just take some getting used to. For example, our standup1 meetings are usually done in front of our whiteboard, which we use to track the progress of different pieces of work. This is quite good at helping the team visualise the overall progress, and keeps us aligned. It’s completely possible to do this meeting over a video call, but I don’t think it’s quite the same.
The small interactions that happen in a physical workplace are something that I miss as well. Because sometimes you just need to bounce ideas off someone, double check something, or just have a quick chat. Working remotely just makes this seem like more of a hassle.
What I’m discovering, is that my previous idea of remote work wasn’t necessary that accurate. In a normal situation, I would work from home occasionally, but only for one or two days at a time, so no real adjustment was needed. It was just a case of carrying on working on whatever you were previously, join a video call for standup, and possibly one for a meeting. But at least for me, it still felt like the “team” was operating out of a physical location, and I was temporarily separated. My expectations for this period of remote working was that it would be an extended version of my past experience, but now I realise I wasn’t truly “working remotely” before.
Obviously, my current experience of remote work is still not going to be a true representation either, as we are all dealing with the lockdown at the same time. Which I assume clouds my judgement about this quite a lot. So I can’t quite claim that my views now are absolute, and given a different scenario, I would probably have completely different opinions on it.
However, that doesn’t mean I’ve not noticed anything I like more about working in an office. A few probably apply to quite a lot of people: face-to-face conversations, small informal discussions, and an easier way to separate work from home.
One thing I miss that possibly is not that popular, is the commute to and from work. Mine is about an hour and a half in total, and involves walking to a train station, getting a train into London, two underground trains, and finally another walk to the office. To some that may seem tedious, but for me that’s time that can be spent listening to a podcast or music, watching a video, reading a book, etc. But I also enjoy walking, and my commute involves about 40 minutes of walking each way, and I find London to be a pretty good place to stroll around. Especially when I go in early at around 6/7.
There are, of course, quite a lot of things that I enjoy about working from home so much. There’s the time that I’ve gained by removing 3 hours of daily commute from my day, the money I’m disabling by not paying for the daily commute, and also the fact that I don’t have to wake up as early to start work. The extra time in the day means that I’ve got more time to do things like cooking dinner, having a proper lunch, and seeing my girlfriend more. We’ve gone from seeing each other in the evenings and the weekend, to practically every second of the day, apart from when she has to go to work (key worker).
All things considered, the hardest part of this situation is the lockdown, not working from home. And the fact that everything seems to have suddenly changed. We can’t just go outside anymore, see our family, or go out with our friends. One that’s especially difficult for us Brits, is the weather. We spend all of our life moaning about it, but right now we are having some pretty great weather. Lucky for us we have a garden, but I’m sure we’d all much prefer to enjoy it properly.
But for now that’s out of our control, and we’ll just have to get on with it.
Tim Bradshaw, Sarah Neville, and Helen Warrell, writing at Financial Times:
Health chiefs in the UK have tasked a team of software developers to “investigate” switching its unique contact-tracing app to the global standard proposed by Apple and Google, signalling a potential about-turn just days after the NHS launched its new coronavirus app.
Maybe they’re finally getting the message, that their custom solution will not work? Just like I mentioned before?
That’s not the only bit of news from this article though, with more details emerging on the app. That is it being developed by a Swiss IT development company named “Zuhlke Engineering”, with a 6-month contract worth £3.8m.
They’re said to be doing this as a two-week time boxed technical spike. Which is basically a period of time allocated to evaluate a new technology/implementation. Then after the spike (evaluation) is complete, more work can be planned, estimated, and carried out.
I’m just glad they’re open to switching to the more practical Apple/Google implementation.
The NHS has come up with its own contact-tracing app, “NHS COVID-19”, and there are already plans for it to be trialled with key workers on the Isle of Wight.
However, it’s doesn’t use the more privacy focussed solution that Apple and Google have come up with, but rather a centralised one. Where the data about the tracked interactions will be sent. Although it doesn’t seem exactly clear what that data is. It could simply be a list of unique IDs that the device has come into contact with, along with your own ID. Or it could also include other sensitive information. Who knows? All I know is that, that question will always exist while it uses a custom solution.
Privacy is not only the potential issue with the app though. My concern mainly is with its effectiveness. This is how they claim it works:
- Once you’ve installed the app on your phone, it can detect (using Bluetooth) if other phones that are also running the app are nearby.
- Importantly, the app knows how close it has been to other phones running the app, and for how long. This allows the app to build up an idea of which of these phones owners are most at risk.
- If you then use the app to report that you’re experiencing coronavirus symptoms, all the phones that have been nearby will receive an alert from the app.
- Users reading the alert will now know they may have been near a person with coronavirus, and can then self-isolate.
- If the NHS later discovers that your diagnosis was wrong (and your reported symptoms are not coronavirus), the other users will receive another alert, letting them know if they can stop self-isolating.
My questions would be the following:
- How often can it run? If it’s just an app with no special entitlements, then surely it is bound my the background restrictions like most other apps.
- If it’s monitoring it relatively often, then surely even Bluetooth Low Energy will have an impact on the battery level?
- What happens if a device is put into low power mode? Is all tracing stopped? Because surely background tasks aren’t run as often then.
- Can you really trust it to trace every contact you’ve had? For example if you sit next to someone with COVID-19 for 10 minutes, but for some reason the background task to monitor Bluetooth doesn’t run, then does it really do it’s job?
And I’d just like to point out the PDF that NHS made to explain the differences between a decentralised and centralised model. The only difference I see, is that their centralised model also includes an “NHS clinical algorithm” to detect the risk posed from each of your interactions.
I for one, will not be using any contact-tracing app, that doesn’t follow the solution that Apple and Google have come up with. Because, apart from wanting to control the data yourself, and possibly even retrieve more data than necessary, there’s no real gain to use a centralised approach.