EXPERTISE

Slovak company Sygic develops COVID-19 contact-tracing app: Interview with Michal Štencl, Executive Chairman & Founder

June 2020 –  A short interview with Kinstellar client Michal Štencl—Executive Chairman & Founder of Sygic and leader of a team of volunteers developing mobile apps for the Slovak government in the fight against the spread of COVID-19. In April 2020 Michal developed the “Covid19 ZostanZdravy” app that is currently used by Slovakia’s National Health Information Centre, and he recently worked on the smart quarantine project “e-Karantena” that will soon be launched for Slovak residents returning from abroad. These projects represent hundreds of hours of pro bono work to help people living in Slovakia.

Michal Štencl is Sygic's co-founder and chairman of the board of directors. His awards in Slovakia in recognition of his work include IT Personality of the Year, the Crystal Wing, and Entrepreneur of the Year. International broadcaster the BBC called him the man behind one of the most successful applications in the world. Michal graduated from the University of Economics and from the Stanford Executive Program for Growing Companies. Among its achievements, Sygic—the fastest growing IT company in Slovakia—introduced the first iPhone navigation application to the smartphone world. Michal’s daily work brings him ever-closer to fulfilling his dream of one day navigating each person on earth.

Sygic is a mapping and navigation platform company with more than 20 million active users worldwide focused on business and consumer drivers. It builds open-mobility platforms for navigation, location-based services, telematics and smart-city products. The company’s automotive team cooperates with carmakers like Honda, Škoda, Jaguar Land Rover and many others to bring the latest smartphone and connected driving innovation to the auto industry.

Kinstellar: Michal, what was the motivation behind starting this significant work back in March 2020?

Michal: Like many of us, I was watching the situation with COVID-19 in China and Italy. I thought that we needed to act to slow the virus down. As I have heard from most public health officials, once the number of people infected reaches more than 100, it starts to become problematic to trace the infection and stop it. I thought there might be a technology to help the public health authorities trace the spread much faster and even predict further infections. So I started communicating with WHO, where I got an immediate response. It all went extremely fast and we did not sleep much.

Kinstellar: The app runs based on Bluetooth technology. How did you know that this solution would be better than GPS?

Michal: I have been working with GPS at Sygic for more than 15 years. As Sygic operates in the industry of GPS navigation and we have developed other tracing apps for family tracking, etc., we know very well both its benefits and its imperfections. GPS is a great technology for the outdoors, as it tracks your precise location within 1 to 5 metres. But when it comes to underground areas, offices, shopping malls or any indoor place, it is very imprecise. The issue is that the technology receives the signal from satellites and, based on the precise time and its triangulation, tries to establish an exact location. This works perfectly if there is no roof barrier but becomes very imprecise indoors. Using this technology could result in a huge number of false positives. COVID-19 is a virus that spreads mainly indoors where people meet and does not transfer so easily outdoors, as there is fresh air and a greater distance between people. So, for this reason, Bluetooth is the right choice. It has low battery usage and can connect to devices within a distance of 2 to10 metres. It can connect to other devices and measure the length of the signal between these devices, and therefore is perfect for such circumstances.

Kinstellar: What other technology do the apps use?

Michal: We initially prepared the app to be based only on Bluetooth, but we were later asked to manage the quarantine as well. For this reason we added GPS, in case the user has to be in isolation from others, and facial recognition to monitor users in home quarantine. In the end this app was split into two apps due to some of the rules required by Apple and Google.

Kinstellar: Do you know the status of these kinds of apps in other countries in Europe, for example the Czech Republic, the UK or elsewhere? Is cooperation among developers successful?

Michal: It seems that many people started with many ideas at the beginning and things are now coming to more common standards. It started to standardise at the end of April with the coalition of Apple and Google using the Bluetooth standard worldwide. Most developers have been ready with some of the solutions, but I believe the standard will help all nations to be better connected and fight this disease together. We are therefore switching to Google and Apple SDKs [software development kits] as well and are among the first adopters.

Kinstellar: The apps touch on some private aspects of our lives, such as our movement or whom we meet. How have you considered the impact on the privacy of individuals?

Michal: The app is extremely secure in terms of privacy. It recognises the connection of other devices, and these devices only send each other some private, randomly generated numbers that change every 15 minutes. This information remains on devices. Once a person is positively diagnosed with COVID-19, they are asked to transfer their anonymised numbers to a server, where it can be verified if other devices have been in contact with such numbers. Therefore no one is tracked. Only the person who is positively diagnosed transfers random and anonymous data from the past. As these numbers change every 15 minutes and the data transferred by a diagnosed person must be older than one day, it is not possible to track such a person. All others download the random data of diagnosed people—healthy people never transfer their data to the server. Basically the app just helps to inform people that they were in contact with a newly confirmed diagnosed person in the past. They do not know who it is, but they know they should go to test themselves and therefore do not spread the virus further.

Kinstellar: What role do the big technology companies play in the fight against the corona crisis? Did you cooperate with any of them?

Michal: Yes, certainly. Google and Apple, as the two major players in terms of smartphones, are extremely important in this situation and bravely decided to build the standard. They have a great opportunity to work closely together and to standardise these protocols. We are in frequent touch with them to develop the app based on these new protocols, which will be published at the end of May by both companies.

Kinstellar: Was any legal support required along the way?

Michal: Clearly, it would not have been possible without it. In particular, the Kinstellar team was helpful in immediately responding to the memorandum, the handover protocols and other documents for the delivery of the app to the Slovak Govegnment. We thank them for their work, responsiveness and overall support. I am also very thankful to Jakub Berthoty, an attorney previously with Kinstellar, who assisted with the data protection aspects of the app.

For more information please contact Viliam Myšička, Partner and Co-head of TMT, at

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