IAS officer Munish Moudgil has quietly devised multiple software applications to help government officials manage the crisis.

How Karnatakas turn to technology created a successful contact tracing approach
Coronavirus Coronavirus Monday, June 22, 2020 - 18:13

In mid-June, when a trainee police officer in Kolar district of Karnataka tested positive for coronavirus, he informed health department officials in his district that he had come in contact with many people, including his brother, a bank employee in Mysuru, in the past two weeks. 

Officials entered details of the people he had met on the contact tracing application developed by the Karnataka government to contain the spread of COVID-19. Within a day, health officials in Mysuru, over 200 km away from Kolar, were alerted, and the brother was tested for coronavirus and his result returned positive. The bank office he worked in was subsequently sealed and his colleagues were asked to remain in home quarantine. 

This is how Karnataka's contact tracing system has helped health officials in the state ensure that the contacts of COVID-19 cases are traced and quarantined within a day of testing positive. 

This followed a plan charted in March to contain the outbreak in the state. It focused on speaking to patients, mapping their movements and seeing who they had interacted with, and isolating them.

The state’s Chief Secretary TM Vijay Bhaskar, a methodical data-driven government officer, turned to a colleague of a similar mould — Munish Moudgil. Munish is the secretary in the Department of Personnel and Administrative Reforms and he was made the head of the COVID-19 War Room in the state. And sticking to his strengths, Munish turned to technology to address the gamut of problems facing the state. 

“As new problems arose at the start of the pandemic, I felt I did not need to hold too many deliberations. I needed solutions in place in a time-bound manner. If the number of patients shoots up to 200-300 per day, there is no choice but to use technology (to trace contacts) since it is not possible to manually keep track of contacts,” Munish explains.

Munish, an IIT-Bombay graduate, already had a reputation for his use of technology to encourage transparency and efficiency in governance. Known to be a workaholic and a man of few words, he quietly devised multiple software applications to help government officials manage the crisis. 

Munish Moudgil in April 2020

Tech-driven COVID-19 management

Karnataka was among many states which decided to turn to technology to help government officials manage the number of tasks cropping up due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The usual practice in such situations is for the government to rope in a technology company which works with officials to build mobile applications and databases for public use. This often came at a hefty cost to the government. 

But in Karnataka, the state government did not have to search for a company. IAS officer Munish Moudgil and a team of in-house programmers, had been implementing technological solutions for the government for over three years now. 

Karnataka rolled out a series of mobile applications in the last three months including the contact tracing application. Of this, as many as seven applications including the contact tracing application were designed by Munish.

“We decided to detail the problems and come up with simple, executable solutions,” Munish says. 

It was Munish who drew the workflow charts and designed the digital system for the applications and his team of programmers churned out the applications to be used by government officials and by citizens in the state. The team worked through Sundays and public holidays to ensure that the applications were ready within days of devising them.

Designing solutions in-house

"You cannot always depend on outside agencies. Even if a private IT company is technologically sound, they have to learn levels of bureaucratic functioning to design an application and put it to public use during a crisis," says Munish.

Experience had taught Munish to read between the lines while developing the applications. His knowledge of the bureaucracy and the know-how of where information flows was crucial in getting the apps ready in quick time. 

In his years as the Commissioner of Survey, Settlement and Land Records, Munish is credited with the department’s shift towards digitisation of land records. He developed the Dishaank app which allows users to know the survey number of their current location within Karnataka and helps them check if their property is on a lakebed or forest land or government land. 

He, along with a team of programmers in the department, also developed the software used to disburse Karnataka’s crop loan waiver scheme introduced by the HD Kumaraswamy-led coalition government in 2018. 

“We trust each other and have an understanding of each other’s work. After I drew the workflow charts and designs, the team of programmers implemented it. We were not doing any rocket science but we were looking to make simple and effective applications for people to use,” Munish says.

In March, the team got to work building applications working with various government departments particularly the health department.

Contact tracing

And the strategy has appeared to work so far. While its neighboring states like Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra grappled with thousands of cases reported everyday, Karnataka has restricted COVID-19 cases in the state to 9150. It’s capital city Bengaluru, with a population of over 1 crore, is comparable to Mumbai and Chennai. But while both cities are grappling with over hundreds of cases reported everyday, Bengaluru has recorded 1272 cases so far. 

Karnataka’s rigorous contact tracing mechanism was hailed as one of the factors in the low number of positive cases in the state.”Earlier, data showed that for every positive case, 47 contacts were traced. This ratio has now come down to 17 for every positive case but that is because most people who turned positive in the last few weeks are interstate travellers who were quarantined upon arrival,” Munish says. 

In comparison, the ratio of contact tracing in Mumbai is reportedly 3.5 for every positive case.

Read: Centre lauds Karnataka's COVID-19 strategy, asks other states to emulate

‘A source of information for officials’

Dr Lokesh, the special commissioner and COVID-19 surveillance in-charge from the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), explained that contact tracing is one of the important aspects of managing the outbreak. “While the focus surely remains on identifying patients and shifting them to hospitals in time, we are also simultaneously carrying out contact tracing of the patients to identify others who might be infected with the virus,” Dr. Lokesh says. 

Government officials dealing with contact tracing in Karnataka said that the application helped transfer relevant information to officials since the contacts of a COVID-19 patient could be scattered in different parts of the state. “Whenever there is a positive case, officials talk to the patient and ask who they have come in touch with in the past two weeks. Sometimes, even call registers are checked to verify the patient’s claims. All the contacts listed by the patient are entered into the application and it helps officials across the state sift through this information and quarantine the contacts in a timely manner,” explains Dr. Lokesh.

Officials also said that the application replaced the earlier method of maintaining patient records in files and helped officials access information quicker.  “Earlier, we had to maintain a file for each and every case recording the name of the patient and their travel history. But since the application was created, these details are entered on it. If I am asked If I am asked for the documentation for the COVID-19 outbreak in the last three months, I need not search for records or look for files. The information is stored in the application,” adds Dr. Lokesh.

The Haryana government is now using Karnataka’s contact tracing software for COVID-19 surveillance.

Read: Haryana govt uses Karnataka’s contact tracing app to fight COVID-19

Apart from the application for contact tracing, Munish and his team developed the 'Quarantine Watch', to keep a watch over and enforce quarantine of travellers who returned to Karnataka, 'Yatri Web App' to track international arrivals and the 'Critical Patient Tracking System' to track all critical patients in the state. Other applications were created like the ‘Daily Rail and Air Passenger Arrival Tracking’ to track arrivals of people coming into the state and the ‘Health Watch App’ which recorded data of the door-to-door survey done by health workers and identified vulnerable households. The data stored in this was transferred to other applications like the Aapthamithra and was used by the health department to follow up. 

In fact, Karnataka's 'Corona Watch' application was developed in late March and was a precursor to the Indian government's 'Aarogya Setu' application. It contained information of the locations of COVID-19 positive patients. There were other tech-driven solutions like the Telegram group started by the Department of Information and Public Relations in March. The group, which is still active with over 30,000 members, was formed to allow the public to clarify doubts and queries about the coronavirus and the rules laid down by the government to manage the pandemic. 

Activists, lawyers raise privacy concerns

Around the same time, the Karnataka government also released a list of addresses of people who were quarantined in their homes in the state. The spreadsheet list contained around 20,000 addresses divided by districts and was accessible for anyone who wished to check it. 

Read: Karnataka’s app for contact tracing reveals home addresses of COVID-19 patients

Digital rights activists flagged the state government's move of making public the list of addresses of those in home quarantine over fears it would lead to panic and ostracisation. The lists of addresses were also released at a time the stringent countrywide lockdown over the coronavirus outbreak was put in place. On March 30, the state government also asked all those who are quarantined at home to send selfies every hour failing which they may be housed in mass quarantine centres. 

Read: Karnataka wants those in home quarantine to send a selfie every hour, starting 7 am

However, the Karnataka government defended its move pointing out that they have not mentioned the name of the patient anywhere and ‘personal details’ of the patient have been withheld. 

“There is a balance of privacy versus public good. We were not putting out the names and phone numbers of people who were in quarantine. We are putting out their addresses. If there are thousands of people in quarantine in Karnataka, the government cannot keep eyes on all of  them. The public has a right to know and can help spot violations,” Munish says. 

Munish also says that the data collected, including the photographs of people in quarantine, will be deleted. 

The challenge ahead

Karnataka’s COVID-19 war room is projecting that the number of active cases in the state will reach 20,000 to 25,000  in August and its officials led by Munish believe that the slew of mobile applications put in place by the state government will come in handy in managing the rising number of cases and the constant changes in rulebook devised by the state. In particular, the exercise of tracing contacts, he says will help the state reduce the number of positive cases while a slip-up could be disastrous. 

“Every day, the situation can change and we are designing solutions as per the requirement. Building these solutions with our own in-house teams was really useful because even small things that were asked by officials were made available for them. We will continue in the same way,” Munish adds. 

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