Fighting a Pandemic With Contact Tracing (Part 2)

(8 minute read)

Part 1 of this article explored the combined benefits of a top-down and bottoms-up approach to dealing with COVID-19, where the national government tackled matters on a macrocosmic level and local communities, organisations and companies tackled matters on a microcosmic level amidst clusters of stakeholders.

Is Contact Tracing Really Worth It?

Don’t bet on a vaccine to protect us from COVID-19 just yet. David Nabarro, professor of global health at Imperial College London and special envoy of the World Health Organization, recently said the public should not assume a vaccine will be fully developed anytime soon – especially not for 12-18 months. Prof. Nabarro added, “We need to focus our attention forward to get ahead of the pandemic. If we don’t, there could be serious consequences for social welfare, stability and people’s livelihoods.”

Developing a vaccine to target Sars-CoV-2 (COVID-19) is hard. “The reality is that this particular coronavirus is posing challenges that scientists haven’t dealt with before”, said Ian Frazer from the University of Queensland.

‘Waiting this out’ is not a viable business strategy. To avoid bankruptcy, businesses need to adapt to at least a distributed labour force working remotely. If they cannot they will have to support staff in returning to a ‘safe’ workplace, somehow, even if only partly. Companies that do not enact adequate workplace safeguards risk either being sued by staff or seeing business insurance premiums rise steeply.

Contact tracing can be implemented by any person or group responsible for developing and implementing workplace health and safety procedures, operations or processes, such as:

  • Human Resources (HR)
  • People & Culture Managers
  • Operations Managers
  • Information Technologists (IT)
  • Business Analysts (BA)

Contact tracing, especially through electronic workplace monitoring, will therefore become increasingly important to helping employees stay informed about the current safety status and potential risks of their workplace. Monitoring the pandemic with personal and remote technology is a thorny issue. Fortunately, we can get results without having our privacy on parade. As governments around the world start using location data to control the virus, there is an equal growth in demand for smart sensors, hardware and monitoring technology, as well as various techniques to anonymise personal data.

Contact Trace Technology

Increasing social adoption of contact trace technology will reduce resurgent outbreaks, particularly amongst clusters of people returning to work. The higher the compliance to contact tracing, the more we can crush the disease curve, not just flatten it.

What, then, is the fastest way to get contact trace technology publicly adopted?

Singapore is a model example of how to accelerate app adoption. In an effort to maximise social adoption of its COVID-19 contact trace solution, Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative, Vivian Balakrishnan, recently announced that its TraceTogether app is now available open-source.

This means the technology can be added to existing apps already published by governments, organisations and companies. It can then be pushed to existing app users as an update, bypassing the need to deploy a standalone app that needs widespread promotion, download and installation – all barriers to adoption.

Local governments, institutions and companies who deliver services through mobile apps can empower people to choose wisely for themselves how they move about. All they need do is disseminate open public health data in their particular microcosms, from councils empowering local rate payers, to universities empowering students, to retailers empowering customers, and more.

The question becomes, what open data do they publish?

Putting data like location intelligence about virus hot spots into people’s hands helps them make informed decisions about mobility – from deciding how to move to deciding when to self-report, get (re)tested and more. This is precisely what the Australian government is hoping to achieve with the release of a new app that’s part of its pandemic ‘road out’ strategy.

Good Datasets

So, what are the big datasets and technologies out there that can help in the fight against a pandemic? Tech giants like Facebook and Google have been tracking users’ whereabouts for years. There’s also an increasing number of apps that have location tracking as part of the ‘opt in’ policies. However, these are not the only businesses that hold mobility data. The majority of modern apps track their users.

Network carriers (telcos) and original equipment manufacturers (OEM) like Apple, Google and Fitbit also have location tracking capabilities. Location tracking is important as it can help solve problems like:

  • Tracking active cases (phone present) to be visualised
  • Tracking movement to understand possible spread
  • Proximity alerts to active cases
  • Proximity alerts for social distancing requirements

Smart Products & Good Data

Many products, in fact, have either the capacity or potential to be useful. From helping users voluntarily submit data to accessing public data for their users’ benefit. Data disclosure is a two-way street. Done well, it can be a value transaction that serves all individuals, creating significant personal benefit, without any one individual having to give up any more than what they’re comfortable with.

Facial recognition (camera) technology is used to record and track people’s movements and even remotely read body temperature. Even mobile phones can be turned into similar capability temperature scanners.

Optical Character Recognition (OCR) is another technology with which to collect information, like self-isolation declaration forms (or have them agree to the declaration in an app that can be accessed via their phone).

Drones are another technology to collect data, which China has used to enforce isolation requirements.

While the possibilities for product-enabled data collection are endless, a critical consideration will be security and data privacy. Privacy and collection of telemetry data can be managed according to privacy best-practices between original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and app publishers, who can provide OEM end-users with safe, value-added services.

Data feeds collected by smart products can be anonymised at the point-of-collection, at the manufacturer or by an intermediary open data clearing house, such as the recently proposed Good Data Cooperative. In fact, many institutions are equipped to cooperate with manufacturers to collect, clean and publish telemetry data like, for example, the University of Technology Sydney Future Mobility lab (FMlab).

Publishing Data via Good Web Apps

App publishers, from government to organisation, institution and company, can augment their native or web apps with location intelligence so stakeholders have access to good data. Such data can include everything from being able to visualise virus hot spots or accessing assistance to voluntary self-reporting.

Pinpoint accurate data visualisation is key to making published data practical in the hands of end-users. Potential datasets that could be visualised by location include:

  • Active, Exposed or Recovered Cases
  • Self-Isolation Cases
  • Suspected Cases
  • Hotspot Areas
  • Individuals-at-Risk (such as elderly)
  • Predictive Spread Modelling

Importantly, this can all be done at an appropriate anonymised level to share with the public and thereby make the tools useful for both voluntary compliance, information sharing and ultimately enforcement.

The ability to harmonise massive disparate data sets is critical – think border force or policing.  Now, what if there was one platform, a turnkey solution, that can connect all of the above technology in real-time?

At the end of the day, rudimentary measures will still be applied and indeed some will still be necessary in a pandemic situation, but would it not be smarter to deploy leading edge technology before depriving citizens of their civil liberties and the resultant economic consequences?  These are some of the lessons to be learned from those who initially restricted the spread of the virus and flattened the curve but failed to do more.

Using Web Apps for Disease Control

From the 2002/3 SARS outbreak to the 2014 Ebola epidemic to the present COVID-19, governments, organisations, institutions and companies have a history of using various platforms, apps and services.

During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, UNICEF used EduTrac and U-Report to plan emergency responses and help aid workers determine local needs in affected regions. UNICEF developed educational resources from the data, including valuable information about causation, infection, symptoms and safety protocols.

Recently at MIT, GPS+Bluetooth mobile technology was used to offer citizens and public health officials a privacy-preserving contact tracing solution called Private Kit.

Oxford University’s Big Data Institute worked with several European governments to examine the feasibility of a coronavirus app for instant contact tracing.

On April 10, Apple and Google announced a joint effort to use the Bluetooth chip in your smartphone to also track the spread of COVID-19. The new system, laid out in a series of documents and white papers, will use short-range Bluetooth to establish a voluntary contact-tracing network, keeping extensive data on phones that have been in close proximity with each other.

Mapcite, too, has offered its SaaS geospatial platform for free to tackle COVID-19 by helping visualise multiple datasets, identify high-risk communities and coordinate disease controls. The platform is especially suited to enabling contact tracing in native and web apps.

Nearly half of all COVID-19 transmissions occur before symptoms occur. This means speed and effectiveness in alerting potentially exposed people is critical. A mobile app strategy that partners app publishers can use today’s technology to accelerate the notification process and slow virus spread, all while maintaining privacy ethics. In all, many technology vendors of both software and hardware products are realising that right now is the best time to start acting like good corporate citizens and help society. Organisations, institutions and companies are realising they can do a lot more for their stakeholders than just wait, too.