Harnessing our smartphones to help track the virus and hence manage the return to life outside.
By Dr. Reza Etemad-Sajadi
Given that the coronavirus spreads as the population circulates, the only solution in the near term is to impose stay-at-home measures so the number of hospitalizations doesn’t explode, pushing hospital workers and equipment to breaking point.
The graphs below show the change of behavior of people in Switzerland during the lockdown period.
Source: COVID-19 Community Mobility Report, Google, 29.03.2020
That being said, when a part of the population will have been immunized (i.e. those who have caught the virus having developed antibodies), tracking via our smartphones could be used to gradually return to “normal” life. The challenge would be for the entire population to use, en masse, the same application. Using Big Data, the movement of individuals who have or have had the virus could be tracked. People who have come into contact with that person would then receive an alert on their cell phone. Moreover, infected individuals who have recovered could slowly start to move about more freely and return to a more normal lifestyle. We can also imagine integrating several indicators into the system, such as people’s age in order to adjust the strategy of lockdown.
The success of this app will depend on three things:
- The app’s technology must be reliable.
- The population must actively participate and everyone should consider himself/herself a “co-creator” of content in terms of information brought into the system.
- Data must remain anonymous.
To ease the lockdown, the system could function as follows:
- Everyone with a smartphone downloads the app.
- Everyone accepts having his/her movements tracked.
- Everyone who catches the virus informs the system with the date of when they tested positive.
- The system sends this information to the Swiss Confederation authorities.
- The system makes the infected person anonymous but sends an alert to the smartphone of everyone with whom he or she has come into contact via the tracker. There is no need to identify the person with the virus, people just receive the following message: “You have come into contact with a person who tested positive for the coronavirus and you should self-quarantine immediately”.
- Subsequently, all these people remain in quarantine.
- After two weeks, the person who has been tested positive for Covid-19 receives a message via the app informing him or her that their quarantine is over, but just for them.
- The other people who were quarantined as a precautionary measure cannot automatically come out of quarantine, because they can’t be sure they haven’t been in contact with the virus or have built up antibodies. To be fully cleared they would have to do a blood test.
This system would enable the lockdown to be lifted only for those individuals who have tested positive and have completed their period of quarantine. To take it a step further, blood tests would have to be conducted on a significant part of the population to check for antibodies; people who have antibodies would gradually be allowed to return to life as normal. Of course this article explains just a scenario of the way the data and the technology can be helpful. The most important thing is to follow the instructions of our authorities.
The Chinese authorities, in partnership with the online behemoth Alibabab, rolled out a similar application in the hardest hit provinces (Lemonde.fr). Each user has a bar code with three colors:
- Red (stay-at-home order for 2 weeks)
- Yellow (7-day lockdown)
- Green (free to come and go)
Obviously, this type of solution raises a number of ethical questions linked to the protection of data and privacy concerns. At the same time however, it could really help society to regain a sense of normalcy. It goes without saying that people must be given the choice to participate in the system or opt out.