Location and Mobility Tracking May Become a Valuable Aid in Virus Control

Cell phone location data is being used to map the path of Covid-19 and alert citizens to interactions with potential carriers. New solutions coming soon will test contract-tracing software for cell phones, while other solutions are using location data and wearables to assess the effectiveness of lockdown orders.


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Image credit: Tectonix

One of the most effective ways to slow the spread of an infection is to stop it in its tracks. That’s why shelter-in-place orders are effective, assuming the majority of people follow them. Following the path of infected people and those with whom they have had contact, called contact tracing, also slows the rate of infection, which is why epidemiologists become “disease detectives” during an outbreak. Two tech companies are offering to help in a big way.

Rivals Apple and Google recently announced they are working together to develop contact tracing software in an effort to reduce the spread of Covid-19. The two companies are working on software for smartphones that will notify people if they have been in recent contact with someone infected with the virus. The ability to do contact tracing is one of several factors  officials consider when determining how quickly states can lift their lockdown orders.

How it Works

The ability of the smartphone to log other devices is known as “contact tracing,” and it makes fast work of what was once handled by epidemiologists on foot or via phone calls.

The software will be embedded into the operating systems of iPhone and Android devices and using Bluetooth will allow smartphones to register other devices in their vicinity. Users who opt to employ the tool voluntarily identify if they have been infected with the novel coronavirus. If a person is infected, the tool will alert a public health app, which then sends broadcast beacons (anonymous identifiers linked to the infected person’s smartphone) to centralized computer servers. Other phones continually ping the servers for broadcast beacons from any phones they have been in contact with during the past 14 days. An alert is sent to the user if there is a match.

Apple and Google are still determining how much information to share with public health officials as they weigh an individual’s right to privacy against public health concerns.

The Path of a Pathogen

Two other tech companies, X-Mode and Tectonix, have already shown how tracking cell phone location data can track the potential spread of Coronavirus. The two companies collected and analyzed cell phone data from people in Fort Lauderdale, FL, in March, and mapped where they traveled after visiting the beach. The map and related video show the Florida cluster spreading to New York, Chicago, and other places. 

City governments are also turning to data lakes for insights. New Mexico is using cell phone data to determine whether its citizens are following social distancing guidelines. Santa Fe-based Descartes Labs is supplying the data, which is used for modeling, not tracking of individual residents, according to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Descartes Labs, founded by scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory, aggregates data from a small percentage of smartphones in different counties, maybe 10,000 samples per day. The data is anonymized, meaning the company doesn’t track individual people or know who the phone numbers belong to.

Lujan Grisham is concerned that truckers and travelers will spread the Covid-19 virus throughout the state. According to the Centers for Disease Control, as of April 21, 2020, New Mexico has nearly 2,100 confirmed Covid-19 cases, about 10 times fewer than neighboring Texas.

Monitoring Mobility and Movement

Fitbit Health used its devices to gather anonymized data from Fitbit devices from its global user base to see which cities were practicing social distancing and following stay-at-home orders. As people and families made the shift from going to the office, school, and gym to home-bound activities, Fitbit Health tapped into its data to understand how the guidelines in major cities were affecting mobility for the population.

Based on its aggregated step data, Fitbit found that as cities issued state of emergency declarations, and again as stay-at-home was ordered, mobility took a sharp decline, suggesting that people generally responded to these policies quickly.

Potential Pitfalls

Apple and Google state that their contact-tracing software will be ready in several months, but its value as a population health solution faces several challenges. Public health agencies will need to link their apps to the software to receive the information. Also, users have to opt in to the program, which will only be effective with a 60 percent adoption rate. Users self-report, so if they don’t know or refuse to identify that they are infected, the tool won’t be effective.

Another hitch is the geographical limitation. Users in China, for example, won’t be included in the contact tracing because Google is banned there. Perhaps the biggest obstacle is that the tool will only work on certain smartphones. Older phones or flip phones, both of which are more common in elderly populations, lack the right Bluetooth chip to operate the software without draining the battery. According to Forbes, that translates to about 2.5 billion users worldwide who will not be part of the new contact-tracing solution.

The Future of Monitoring

While China has overt contact tracing and monitoring systems in place, that is unlikely to fly in the U.S. and other western countries. Researchers at Frost & Sullivan have suggested that a ubiquitous network of IoT sensors combined with advanced data analytics, artificial intelligence, and constant connectivity could be used to detect viruses on a global level. However, it would take years of planning and international agreements to implement, and it raises significant privacy concerns.

This isn’t the first time that public safety measures that conflict with user privacy have been implemented on a large scale. After 9/11, airport security measures changed, and people adapted. Dilip Sarangan, IoT Global Research Director at Frost & Sullivan, has noted that today everyone passes through metal detectors at security checkpoints. “How farfetched is it to go through a checkpoint that checks your temperature?”