Apple and Google have announced that they will collaborate on developing software that will help warn users if they have come in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. This is an unprecedented move by two U.S. tech giants to step in to fight the crisis. Critics have been quick to raise concerns about how this may impact user privacy. But this is not the first time that tech companies are being invited to the driver’s seat to navigate this crisis. In fact, others parts of the world are already using technology much more aggressively to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
Besides helping societies remain connected over the Internet, these technologies are also enabling public health officials to track potentially infected individuals, enforce quarantine measures, create community-wide awareness about the virus, and plan coordinated responses to deal with resource shortages. So how exactly is this being done?
Countries like Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, and Israel are using data from citizens’ mobile phones to perform “contact tracing” – a method that uses trajectory and geo-location data from mobile phones to detect and isolate individuals who were in close proximity to someone who has been tested positive for COVID-19. It is based on the same technology and analytics that digital marketers often use to identify and target potential customers with advertisements through their smartphone apps, such as in geo-targeting and geo-fencing.
Singapore’s Government Technology Agency has developed an app called TraceTogether, which enables infected individuals to share information with the authorities about those who they have come in contact with recently. In South Korea, entrepreneurs have developed websites that show the places recently visited by known coronavirus cases and allow users to check if there are any known coronavirus cases in their vicinity. Israel’s internal security service agency is using location data to send text messages to those who may have been exposed to the virus, cautioning them to self-isolate. More recently, Germany announced a Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing initiative to develop a similar contact tracing mobile app. While these applications have raised some concerns about privacy, they have been widely viewed as effective and necessary tools in the fight to proactively stop the spread of the virus and saving lives in these countries.
In China, the country where COVID-19 cases were first reported, Baidu – the Chinese equivalent of Google – has developed an infrared sensor for no-contact screening that uses AI to automatically identify individuals with fever, even when they are in a crowd. The government has created a “health code” app that give users a color-coded designation based on their health status and travel history, which can be checked by the authorities before permitting entry into crowded locations, for example, train stations. A green code allows a user to travel, a yellow code indicates that the user should be in self-isolation, and a red code indicates the user has tested positive for the virus and requires quarantine. The Chinese government views this health code app as an essential tool to ensure that its healthy citizens can get back to work while others observe the quarantine measures fully. The intent is to prevent a second wave of infections that could harm its economy even further. Similarly, Taiwan rolled out a mobile phone-based “electronic fence” that monitors the phone signals of quarantined individuals and alerts the police if they leave their home.
In the U.S., tech giant Google has announced that it will use anonymous and aggregated user data from mobile phones to help government agencies understand if social distancing rules are being observed in public places in different counties. Many federal and state government agencies are also working with telecom operators and mobile advertisers to measure the success of their lockdown directives.
Building community awareness
Mobile apps are also playing a vital role in creating awareness in the community about the virus. For example, the government of India has launched a chatbot feature on WhatsApp, called MyGov Corona Helpdesk. Its citizens can send text messages to this chatbot to receive authoritative answers about coronavirus symptoms and treatment. An active community of software developers in India is also developing innovative mobile applications – ranging from those that help patients locate nearest hospitals with available beds to those that facilitate grocery delivery for senior citizens.
Faced with the problem of long wait times for callers inquiring about COVID-19 information, several health care centers in the U.S. are deploying AI-based software to replace staffed hotlines with online screening and triage tools. The goal is to identify those callers who do need additional medical care (e.g., high-risk patients who need to be directed to testing sites, clinics, or emergency departments) while reassuring others who only need some information and self-monitoring.
Analytics for hospital capacity planning
Another area in which information technology is playing a vital role is in hospital resource planning. In this era of big data, various organizations have been collecting data from multiple sources about this pandemic and developing analytics-powered dashboards to present real-time information to the public. For example, several websites are reporting data about the number of COVID cases, hospitalizations, and death counts in different countries. Many state governments in the U.S. have also launched their own dashboards to provide timely information to the public. These public data repositories will allow researchers and policymakers quantify the real-time impact on hospital systems and forecast future utilization levels of hospital resources.
These are just some of the ways in which data, analytics, and technology are helping us to respond to this global pandemic. With no cure or vaccine available in the immediate future, we will need to increasingly rely on data, analytics, and technology to turn the tide against the spread of the virus. There will be many more examples of human ingenuity that will emerge from this crisis, and hopefully these innovations will also help propel our society forward in the post-COVID world.
Soumya Sen, Ph.D., is a McKnight Presidential Fellow and an associate professor of Information & Decision Sciences at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. His expertise is in internet technologies, data communications, electronic commerce, cloud technology, network security and broadband data pricing.
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