The last two months, possibly more for others, have caused some major changes to our everyday lives due to the global COVID-19 outbreak.
Despite the obvious challenges, we also live in a time in which technology and data have the power to play a significant role in helping to fight the spread of the disease.
From the forward-thinking use of GPS and satellites to the innovative use of Bluetooth technology in smartphones, here’s a quick run-through of how different organizations plan to use tech and data to help fight the coronavirus,
Space technology and coronavirus
Starting a conversation about the current coronavirus outbreak with the topic of space technology may seem like an odd pairing of ideas. That being said, a startup company known for its use of open-source GPS and satellite technology, Lanterne, has developed an app to make it easier for people to practice social distancing. Using live data, it shows the crowdedness of different places and locations. Complete with a website, the app is one of several interesting technological developments going on to help address the global COVID-19 pandemic. In the UK, this dovetails, as a theme, with GOV.UK’s recent announcement, as of April 14, about the £2.6 million worth of investment being used to fund different technological projects in a “joint initiative” with the European Space Agency (ESA) to help support the UK’s NHS. It’s said that current challenges, such as the delivery of masks, test kits and even the management of disease outbreaks, in general, can potentially be helped through both drone and satellite technology.
Tech solutions around the world
Business Insider drew attention to, on March 23, an app in Poland that requires those in quarantine in the country to prove they are remaining at home by uploading selfies. Back on March 18, according to Nature, a world-leading science journal, a combination of text message alerts and, sometimes, credit-card transactions and closed-circuit television were used to help track the movements of those infected with coronavirus in South Korea. The country has also been using technology to help people know if they may have come into contact with somebody with the virus. The Conversation, an online publication for academics and researchers, asks, as of April 14, whether location data should be used in the United States to find and alert those who may have been exposed to the virus. Of course, this is bearing in mind the rising coronavirus cases in the country which potentially adds urgency to these kinds of decisions. Concerns about privacy are also definitely worth mentioning.
Addressing privacy concerns
The difficulty with some of these examples is how to strike a balance between providing people with the right amount of privacy whilst ensuring the technology used works effectively. Apps that require a user to opt-in to a service instead of asking for compulsory participation provide one way of doing this, but it can be argued that the effectiveness of this relies on how many people are willing to adopt the technology. Some other good news, according to The Conversation, is that tech that uses population-level analysis, if done well, can protect peoples’ privacy and provide key health information at the same time. They highlight two examples of this in the form of Kinsa, a smart thermometer company that's using data about temperature to help unveil signs of COVID-19 across the United States. The second refers to how Google has been using aggregated, anonymized data to chart peoples’ movements to help see how well they are conforming to social distancing. In turn, this may help public health officials formulate better strategies to
Other technology solutions
Not unlike some international examples given above, privacy concerns become more complex when things move from a population to an individual level. But there are some positives to consider. One example of this individual tracking tech involves “contact tracing” through the use of Bluetooth technology. According to MIT News, as of April 6, if somebody tests positive for coronavirus and they use this tech on their smartphone, they can then upload the Bluetooth “chirps” emitted by their phone within the last 14 days to a database. Others can then find out if any of these “chirps” match those picked up on their phones. Any matches then trigger a notification telling the smartphone user they could have been exposed to COVID-19. The good news about this tech according to Ron Rivest, MIT Institute Professor, is that this method constantly changes an individual’s ID so that information cannot be traced back to them. MIT, its partnering organizations, and this technology form the Private Automated Contact Tracing (PACT), a group focused on slowing the spread of COVID-19 using contact tracing technology.
The tech mentioned has interesting similarities to the recently announced collaboration between Apple and Google, both creating a contact-tracing tool that also utilizes Bluetooth technology.
According to Recode, a technology news website, as of April 13, once the software is active on your smartphone it retains a “list of keys” from those you have into contact with. This information stays on your phone and is not sent to a server unless you happen to test positive for COVID-19 and you report it yourself. Similar to what’s described by MIT News, the technology doesn’t reveal the identity of anybody COVID-19 positive but does share information with anyone who has collected the “keys” uploaded by someone infected to inform them they may have been exposed to the virus. Recode goes on to say that although we still don’t know much about how this technology might have an impact in practice, it could be described as “one of the most ambitious private-public partnerships in recent history.”
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