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Can Smartphones Be Used To Track The Spread Of COVID-19?

Updated: Mar 31, 2020

Can smartphones track the spread of Covid-19?

With COVID-19 wreaking havoc across the globe, leaders, scientists, researchers, etc., are racing against time to find a cure for it.

In 2011, two scientists at the Cambridge University developed FluPhone- an app that could measure and model the spread of the flu. The app used Bluetooth and other wireless signals for interactions between people and asked users to report symptoms of flu.

For instance, if you had dinner with someone who later fell sick, the app would let you know. Besides preventing the flu from the spread, FluPhone helped health authorities track the spread of the flu. Although the app made headlines at the time, less than 1% of people in Cambridge signed up for it.

As the deadly virus stalks the world, some techies suggest using smartphones to monitor and report transmissions. However, this idea raises many questions such as would the system actually work? Whether it could create unnecessary confusion? Whether it would require government or corporate surveillance?

Jon Crowcroft and Eiko Yoneki (creators of FluPhone) believe that their app could help fight the coronavirus as well.

Crowcroft says that the health authorities can use the app to populate anonymized map data and also help researchers understand;

China and South Korea have used smartphones to slow the spread of Covid-19. Drawing inspiration from them, some US technologists have started working on tracking apps. In February, an open-source project known as CoEpi (similar to FluPhone) came up.

Ramesh Raskar, a professor at MIT Media Lab along with his team is developing an app that would allow people to log their movements and compare them with known coronavirus patients using the redacted data from the state or national public health departments. In due course, like FluPhone, users can be asked if they are infected, thereby providing a way to identify potential transmissions. The team released a prototype for testing a few days back.

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Raskar has been in contact with the WHO, the US Department of Health and Human Services, other researchers and tech executives for guidance on what will work.

Stefan Germann, CEO of the Botnar Foundation, a Swiss organization that focuses on health and child welfare sees a lot of potential in the proposed app. However, he feels that the app should be tested in a single “sandbox” city first. Others suggest that similar technology should be made default features of smartphones.

An open letter signed by several prominent executives, technologists, and clinicians called on the tech industry to put in more effort to combat the Covid-19. The group also recommended that Google and Apple update their smartphone software to make it possible to track contact between people if users grant permission. However, both Apple and Google did not comment.

The letter suggests that such a helpful feature could prevent many people from being exposed if it could be built before SARS-CoV-2. Also, in the future, such infrastructure can help epidemic diseases to be contained more effectively and make large scale contact tracing that worked for China and South Korea, feasible to the rest of the world.

According to Peter Eckersley, a renowned technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation says that it should be possible to implement such a system without the need for the national database that would require government surveillance. He adds that the checks could happen on their own phone or with advanced security software.

In general, the coronavirus outbreak is inspiring new approaches in disease detection, drug development, and scientific research. Smartphone surveillance may seem like a good solution to track the spread but it is not a guaranteed solution. It may also do more harm than good.

Again, going by the nature of Covid-19 transmission, an app may only be able to give a rough figure of the spread. According to a study published last year, a phone is able to determine its position with an accuracy between 7 and 13 meters in urban areas, with less precise accuracy. And Covid-19 virus seems to spread between people within a few feet apart.

According to Hannah Fry, an associate professor at the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London, UK feels that it may not be as simple as it seems. For instance, you can come in contact with a train seat that was occupied by someone with the virus many hours earlier and be at risk. Fry also says that any incorrect information may encourage risky behavior and give people a false sense of security.

In addition, it may be challenging to get people to report their infectious status or overcome their concerns over privacy. Also, a minimum of 20% of a population will have to contribute to help such an app to be effective for modeling disease and predict its spread.

As of now, the US government is not encouraging people to develop virus-tracking apps. A meeting with the tech companies was held at the White House to encourage them to help in the fight against the virus. A spokesperson said that no suggestion of smartphone tracking or app came up.

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Use of coronavirus related apps in China and South Korea has not been completely positive.

The Chinese apps AliPay and WeChat have been used to assign people “color codes “ to help them understand if they should move freely or quarantine themselves. However, some citizens say that the codes appear to be applied randomly or based on a province they are in.

In South Korea, sent out texts with details of movements of people infected with Covid-19 that caused public shaming and rumor-mongering. The government is also using the app to make sure that people stay at home when they have been ordered to quarantine themselves. There is no evidence that the apps provide the data back to the authorities.

Fry of UCL, however, believes that privacy challenges and other limitations can be overcome. He says that it is worth a try as the data is available and it would make a huge difference if they could put it to use.

John Edmunds, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who worked on the FluPhone and also helped develop Influenzanet, an online system for voluntary reporting of flu-like symptoms says that self-reporting illness through the internet is very useful for getting a proper picture of what’s going on. Edmunds also says that Influenzanet has helped health officials to understand the spread of the disease and individual’s risk factor in a better way.

Eckersley of the EFF agrees that smartphone tracking will only work in combination with social distancing. He also acknowledges the shortcomings of the Chinese and South Korean approaches and believes that the endeavor is worth a try given the severity of the situation. He calls for the tech industry to help as he believes only they can make it happen.

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