With each day, the novel coronavirus (or COVID-19) continues to grow into an ever-increasing threat to US hospital systems, the economy, and daily life. In the confusion of our new reality, experts and technologists are brainstorming new and innovative ways to tackle the pandemic using data and technology, while others are basing their current practices off of previous epidemics. Here is a look at how some countries and organizations are using and thinking about data and technology to contain and mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic:
Due to its regional proximity and status as a trading partner to China, Singapore was hit early in this global pandemic that has stretched into its fourth month as COVID-19 makes its way across the globe. Within a few weeks of the first confirmed case from Wuhan, China, the island-nation had a dozen cases, quickly realized the cases were not merely the seasonal flu, and took immediate action. From its previous experience with the SARS epidemic in the early 2000s, Singapore began the painstaking process of contact tracing to find the commonalities that linked the case. Within one or two days of a new confirmed case, authorities in Singapore were able to reconstruct the chain of transmission from one person to another. The information collected has contributed to the most detailed database of case information of any country which includes a breakdown of age, gender, nationality, and location of cases in the city. By February, anyone entering a government or corporate building would have to provide contact details to hasten the contact tracing process.
In addition to contract tracing, Singapore quickly developed nucleic acid testing kits to test for COVID-19 and sent them to ports of entry. The tests were able to produce results within three hours while tested individuals were quarantined on-site. This allowed for officials to confirm whether or not an individual was allowed to enter the country. In March Singapore developed an app, TraceTogether, as a supplementary tool for contract tracing efforts that exchange short-distance Bluetooth signals when users are near each other. As a result of quick thinking and aggressive efforts to trace COVID-19, Singapore has managed to keep its number of cases relatively low and contained unlike several other countries who took a more lax approach despite having more time to prepare.
In reaction to the urgent need for contact tracing in order to contain COVID-19, several apps have been developed to aid the effort to make contact tracing more efficient and accurate. One such app is called Private Kit: Safe Paths—a free and open-source app developed by a team of Harvard and MIT researchers, as well as software engineers from tech companies like Facebook and Uber, who donated their free time. The app is designed to track where the user has been and who they have crossed paths with in a way that preserves privacy.
In order to ease privacy concerns that have appeared in China, South Korea and Israel regarding personal data surveillance, the Private Kit: Safe Paths shares encrypted location data between phones in the network in a way that does not go through a central authority. This allows users to see if they have come in contact with someone who is carrying the coronavirus (if they have chosen to share that information) without revealing their identities. A user who tests positive is also able to share their location data with local health officials who can then make it public. However, one major caveat to this app and any others created for this purpose is that the effectiveness will only be successful if enough people use it—meaning, its usage needs to be mandated.
Tech companies Google and Facebook are mulling over efforts to analyze the movement of their millions of users to ascertain how COVID-19 is spreading across the country and evaluate the success of social distancing. The resulting data could be shared with public health officials and government agencies to aid in the effort to contain the largest and most deadly public health emergency this generation has ever seen. Insiders say that every attempt is being made to anonymize the data in order to protect user privacy. It is believed that an outline of how people are gathering and moving around could be crucial to containing the novel coronavirus, which could overwhelm the US hospital system—if it hasn’t already—if current rates of transmission don’t change.
However, like other data-mining surveillance efforts to curtail COVID-19, there are critics wary of government officials openly mining geolocation data as a violation of privacy. Some anonymized, aggregate location data is already available to researchers by cell phone companies, Google, Facebook and Uber,but such extensive usage to track coronavirus patients would be new. Researchers have previously used cell phone data pinging towers to predict the spread of malaria in Kenya, which provided accurate data inside a few hundred meters.
Caroline Buckee, an associate professor at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health who has studied the usage of cell data to model the spread of infectious disease, has been involved with these discussions with tech companies and emphasized the importance of making sure that the data collected cannot be reverse engineered to track individuals.
Earlier this month, Harvard Global Health Institute (HGHI) in collaboration with ProPublica launched an interactive tool that measures hospital-care capacity in relation to the projected demand in the country’s 306 hospital referral regions. The tool will help local policymakers and healthcare leaders prepare for a rush of coronavirus patients by showing specific gaps to address or areas in need. The tool is based on data from the American Hospital Director and the American Hospital Association, which is the most extensive annual survey of hospitals in the country. Additional information about the current and projected hospital bed availability, professional capacity, and equipment is matched to age and data from the U.S. Census, then adapted for age distribution, population size, and predicted hospitalization rate, among other factors.
The app provides a picture of the best- and worst-case scenarios by region; reflecting variables such as ICU capacity, availability of beds, high-risk population over the age of 65, and projected infection rates. Users and decision-makers are able to visualize scenarios for different time frames (six months, 12 months, or 18 months) in order to see what areas their communities need to focus on to ensure they have enough hospital beds, equipment or trained professionals. At the moment, researchers state that the current number of ICU beds is below what will be needed to meet the full demand if COVID-19 runs its course.
Soon, a website will allow decision-makers to manipulate additional factors and model scenarios of longer periods. The researchers hope to include additional datasets, such as elective surgeries and chronic conditions to ensure that the app provides as accurate data as possible.
In this article, experts in medicine, public health, and law make the case for utilizing mobility data to aid in containing COVID-19 as it spreads and wreaks havoc across the globe. The authors contend that understanding the efficacy of public messaging and social distancing is crucial in the fight to mitigate the virus. Both the academic and public health communities can and should use population mobility data, they write, from private companies “with appropriate legal, organizational, and computational safeguards in place.” The aggregated data can help improve COVID-19 interventions by providing near real-time information about changes in patterns of population mobility.
The article points to clear guidelines to safeguard responsible data practices; tools for specifying various levels of privacy for different users that can manage data access; and “aggregation steps” that have been reviewed on legal and methodological procedures to make sure that analysis of such data follows ethical guidelines regarding human participants. Additionally, the experts point out several ways in which the aggregated data could be utilized: a map that delves into the impact of social distance messaging can help county officials determine what kinds of messaging or policies are most effective, and comparing public response to the virus interventions to a baseline of normal activity can help officials conclude which social distancing measures are being followed.
Lastly, the experts emphasized that the protection of personal privacy is vital and doable—and can be modeled on other countries. While not encouraging the use of individual data, the authors said that consent-based data sharing models and data protection laws allow for the use of personal data during emergencies but don’t need to improperly violate data protection goals.