Days after entering into a multi-million dollar contract to develop a contact tracing app, another company offered similar technology to Utah officials for free

coronavirus smartphone

Last month, Gov. Gary Herbert announced to great fanfare that they had partnered with a Utah high-tech company to produce a contact tracing app to help track and slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. The partnership could cost the state more than $2.75 million for development and deployment. However, another company approached state officials offering an app for contact tracing with some of the same functions to Utah officials for free.

In March, Utah contracted with the company Twenty to produce the “Healthy Together” app, unveiling a beta version of the application on April 22. 

The state contract with Twenty shows the development of Healthy Together initially cost $1.75 million, with the possibility of another $1 million for improvements and enhancements. The state also is responsible for $300,000/month in “maintenance fees” for the first 1 million users, with an additional 30 cents for each user after that. Those hosting and service fees for the Healthy Together app could cost the state $3.6 million annually at a minimum. In the first year alone, development and hosting costs will be at least $6 million.

On April 6, nine days after the contract with Twenty was signed, Justin Harding, Gov. Gary Herbert’s chief of staff, was approached by Khosrow Semnani with a similar app, called “Distancing,” that he offered to the state at no cost. In an email obtained through an open records request, Semnani provided a summary of an app “for social distancing and Proximity Event Logging” developed by his son’s company, Ferry.

“This is an extremely unique and useful product that I have asked my son to provide country-wide to essential public service employees free of charge as a donation,” wrote Semnani.

There are some significant differences in functionality between the two apps, so it’s not an apple to apple comparison. Both apps perform contact tracing, which is an integral part of slowing the spread of the coronavirus. However, Healthy Together has a health screening quiz that is part of the Test Utah initiative. Distancing does not ask the user health screening questions. But, the Distancing app uses Bluetooth technology to help users maintain social distancing by informing users when they are closer than 6 feet to another person who is also using the app. 

Distancing is based on indoor geolocating technology used by airlines, airports and arenas. An information sheet obtained by details how that could be used to allow companies to respond to a positive test by one of their employees or a customer.

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The free app offer may simply be the victim of bad timing. The contract with Twenty to develop and deploy the Healthy Together app was signed on March 28, while the first contact with the state by Semnani was 9 days later.

In an April 7 email, Harding acknowledged speaking to Semnani about his app in a phone call and sent the materials about the technology to Kristen Cox and Lorie Davis with the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget. He also suggests that some of the technology in the Ferry app could be integrated into Healthy Together.

“I spoke with Kristen Cox. She is really excited about the technology. Some elements of the tech have already been incorporated into the app. She will review and see what other elements can be rolled into the existing app,” he wrote.

A source in Governor Herbert’s office who was not authorized to speak on the record tells that they are currently working with the Semnani’s and their company to include some of the Distancing features in future versions of the Healthy Together app, primarily the Bluetooth social distancing and indoor geolocating technology.