Should Bicyclists Bring Smartphones?

A bicycle handlebar with three phones mounted on it.
Should Bicyclists Bring Smartphones Along for the Ride?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I just got a high-end, aluminum frame bicycle and plan to do more local cycling by myself, and also with a club. I am conflicted about whether bicyclists should bring smartphones on the trip. I can easily store the phone in a saddle-bag under the seat, but should I take a phone with me at all? Isn’t the whole point of cycling to get outdoors and be free?  Corbin, San Rafael

Dear Corbin: As people spend more time working from home and on computers, they are discovering, like you, the flip side: the need to turn off and get outside.  A bicycle trek seems like the perfect antidote for these digital times.

I see three reasons why you might want to pack that phone in the saddle-bag, but read on to the end. 

First, you mentioned that you will be cycling with a club. Often club members like to check in on each other’s adventures, and announce their milestones through an app like Strava. If that is you, then you need your phone to record the trip distance, elevation, speed and time. Although that brings an element of competition to the sport, it can also be motivational. Alternatively, you could do a handlebar mount with a wireless receiver that is compatible with apps and smart trainers, so a phone is not the only option. If  this is what makes you cycle better and longer, go for it!

PICTURE THIS!

A second reason to carry the phone is so that you don’t miss that special moment when you yearn for a picture. Occasionally you will discover a picture-perfect “Kodak Moment.”  That image could be as tiny as a lizard sunning on the road, or as panoramic as the sun rising on San Pablo Bay. The point is that you have the camera on your smartphone poised, ready to preserve that memory. 

The final reason the phone might be useful, God forbid, is if you encounter someone in an accident or if you are in one yourself. From my transportation background: in 2018 854 bicyclists were killed in collisions with motor vehicles, and there has been a 38 percent increase since the low point in 2010 and the highest number of fatalities in 30 years. By the way, pedestrian fatalities have increased 46 percent over the same period and people outside of motor vehicles now account for a fifth of all traffic deaths.  So, while carrying the phone might make you feel better prepared, you must keep the device out of sight and out of your hands. 

If you have a connected wrist watch, like the Apple watch  with cellular service, then you would not need to bring the phone. However, that forfeits the picture- taking ability. Moreover, it tips towards distraction. That small screen is constantly updating the time, and depending on the settings,  updates for  calls, texts, and chat. 

TRIP ENDS

Until recently, say 2008, we did not have wireless smartphones that accompanied us on  outdoor trips. I am not counting the Blackberry, which emerged circa 2000, because it was essentially a tool for business email, not recreational purposes. Until the last decade, bikers and hikers taking short day treks managed to ramble without being tethered to a phone. We tend to overestimate our personal chances of encountering an emergency, and underestimate that others are nearby to help.  And, we have forgotten that a sketch book and diary are alternatives to the photo image, even if we cannot post it on social media.

But one final note: In my hometown bikers seem to pack their phones out-of-sight but pull them out as soon as they finish their ride. They culminate their hilly up and down trip by congregating at a foody hangout for a deserved snack and iced drink. And, how do they pay? With Google Pay or Apple Wallet, naturally.

Vaccination Record on Phone?

“Don’t Leave Home Without It?”…..does that apply to the vaccination card?

Three screenshots from a smartphone showing how to use NY state's Excelsior Vaccine Record for Phones.
Should we put a vaccine record on the phone? Credit: verywellhealth.com

Dear Ms. Smartphone:  We are planning Fall travel to the East Coast and can’t decide whether to put our vaccination record on the phone. Unlike a piece of paper that everyone can read, will select people know my family’s details? Will we need to have cellular service or wifi  to show proof?  And, what if the technology does not work in places we go?  Perhaps I am overthinking this. Hector, Corte Madera

Dear Hector:

There are lots of things we store on our phones these days when we travel: a pass like the ‘Clipper Card’ for the bus or train, our plane ticket, hotel keys, and, of course, the holiday photos. So, should we add the proof that we got a Covid vaccine to the smartphone mix?  I am going to give you the high tech solution first and then the low tech one. 

If you already store your airplane tickets on a digital wallet, you will find the vaccine information, aka the vaccine passport, to be similar. In one case, it’s the airline and the TSA that verify your information. Now it’s a  health authority or their proxy. Is that proxy secure? In an earlier Dearsmartphone I weighed the issues and note a date breach at TSA from a trusted third party.

But, that said, there has been a literal race to develop these vaccine passports, alongside the race to develop the vaccine itself. China and Israel were the first countries to implement digital passports. Israel now seem to be ramping up to reinstate a Green Pass (think ‘green’ traffic light). In the U.S., there are multiple data credential centers springing up and no one knows if they will be able to keep your health information safe, secure, and locked down.

HIGH TECH-QR:

If your upcoming trip takes you to New York, there is a first-mover experiment taking place there. The former Governor Cuomo (remember him), IBM, and the department of Public Health have teamed up to offer an ‘ Excelsior Pass’.  People vaccinated in NY have an option to upload basic information like the date they got the Covid vaccines, their birth date, zip code, and phone number. Next they receive a QR code for their phones. When they need to show proof, say at Yankee Stadium, they flash  a picture ID, alongside the QR code on their phones. A scanner to a distributed network verifies that the QR code is valid. The QR codes have to be renewed after six or nine months as the protection from the vaccination is believed to weaken.

But, to confuse matters further, the City of New York is developing a brand new app, also with IBM, so that visitors who live outside the state, like you, can show their credentials. Meanwhile, Walgreen, Sam’s Club, and others have issued their own proprietary apps for uploading digital  health data. It sounds like the NYC/IBM collaboration has more data protections than average but you must still agree to trust their encryption method based on blockchain technology.

LOW TECH-SCAN:

But if you want the low-tech solution before you travel, then either scan, or take pictures of the vaccine cards for your entire family and save them to your phone. Then, if you forget to take the cards, or worse, lose them, you will have a record. It’s not a huge advancement over the first vaccine record that public health officials instituted, in 1884! But it most certainly works. The downside is that people might fake them, making public exposure to the virus more likely. That said, digital records can be faked too, but with a higher level of effort. 

As those under age 12 wait for a vaccine, and other groups question whether they need it at all, those who are vaccinated ask whether it is safe to put the information on our phones.  New issues for new times. Perhaps that is why it was initially called the ‘Novel‘ Corona virus. Safe travels.

Vaccine Record on Phone..more

Would keeping a vaccine record on my phone be a healthy thing to do?

Airline passengers need to produce test results showing they have been tested for Covid. Are vaccination results next?
Covid records needed for travel. photo credit: International Airport Review

Dear Ms. Smartphone: If paper records can be forged, how about those on smartphones? I enjoyed last week’s column about digital record keeping. But then you mentioned that some passengers (mostly outside the U.S.) were using negative results from faked Covid tests to get travel access. I hope to start flying soon and want my plane to be Covid free. Are the same people going to fake getting the vaccine, and if so, would it be safer if the virtual record is kept on our phones?  Erin, Sausalito

Dear Erin: I didn’t mean to alarm people with the item about travel and counterfeit Covid records. I am not in public health but imagine that there is always some level of forged activity and behavior. But to your question: would it be safer to keep vaccination records on our smartphones? 

There is a precedent for paperless, digital certificates.  When you take an airline trip, you might be one of the millions who upload your boarding pass to a digital wallet. Behind the scenes as you board, the bar code in your wallet is ‘read’, transmitted to a central data base, and matched to the airline’s reservations file. You are fairly secure since the bar code has to match the record in the airline’s data base.  Yes, there are fraudsters who could facilely fake bar codes for phones  but they have to be highly sophisticated to hack into the airline’s data base. 

Digital Record Keepers

Since Covid began, companies like IBM, with its Digital Health Pass  have vied to develop platforms so that people can upload their health records and fly with confidence.  And, a Swiss non-profit called the Commons Project and the World Economic Forum, have partnered with many major airlines including United and JetBlue. 

I imagine there are similar protocols for vaccination records.  When you finish the (two) shots, then a  digital certificate, like a barcode, will be issued to your smartphone.

This week, LA County is piloting a smartphone record as they roll out the vaccine. But, it is administratively more complex than airline reservations as there is no central source for certification. Lot of different health organizations will administer the vaccine, from large retail pharmacies, pop-up vaccination centers in supermarkets to wellness centers. These sites have to upload vaccination records to a “platform.”

And then, assuming each one has that capacity, who will maintain the platform and the database to insure its integrity and accuracy? For example, might it be the platform provider, like IBM or Common Trust, or might it be the U.S. government’s Center for Disease Control? 

‘Opening Up’ Means UpLoading?

For this data base to be useful for reopening the economy, connectivity with the platform is essential. Say you need to show that you got the Covid vaccine to gain entrance to a big conference, rent a car, or get ticketed for a sports event. Your credentials would be checked by two-way communications between the bar-code on your phone and a centralized data-base. Note that if the data check was asynchronous, not done in real time, then it would be easier to create bogus entrance passes. 


In researching this topic, I learned that a business teamed up with US Customs and Border Protection (TSA is part of them) to create a mobile passport in 2014  without government funding. The digital passport on the phone cuts out the need to wait in line at customs. Pre Covid they had 30 airport locations and 7 million users. But, this type of  business model may now be subject to greater scrutiny. Customers and Border Protection had a large data breach in 2019 when facial imaging data was transmitted by a (private) subcontractor’s database.

Solutions?

We are in the early days of understanding what can and should be kept on phones when it comes to digital certification. There will not be an overnight solution because there will be further digital divides, perhaps digital chasms, between those with tech and those who lack smartphones and a data plan. While many of us continue to put money in our digital wallets and do banking online, health and travel records are tricky. 

On a personal note, my friends and family who have been fortunate enough to get Covid shots have all received, shades of grade school, yellow index sized cards or papers with the date of inoculation, the manufacturer name, lot number of the vaccine, and the health care site. Whether that piece of paper will satisfy the airlines, hotels, and public venues remains an open issue and whether those with phones ‘opt in’ to ‘get out.’