Read more articles by Stefanie Le

By Stefanie Le • April 29, 2020

Six weeks into broad social distancing and quarantine efforts in the United States, rural areas are starting to see the spread of the novel coronavirus while metropolitan hot spots are hitting their peak or just about to flatten the curve. In response to this, local and state officials across the country are taking mitigation efforts into their own hands by employing new mobile apps or utilizing location data to ramp up contract tracing. This article builds upon a previous post in taking a look at how cities and states are applying data and technology in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S.  

Forbes: Community Connect for COVID-19 is a Powerful App for Keeping You Safe

With the global pandemic vastly overwhelming healthcare capability across the country, emergency medical services (EMS) and fire departments have become inundated with 911 phone calls—most of them COVID-19 related. Coupled with the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), the risk to first responders is multiplied as the first personnel entering the homes of potential new coronavirus patients. 

First Due, which created the Community Connect platform for public safety agencies for pre-incident planning, mobile response, and community engagement solutions, teamed with the International Association of Fire Chiefs to offer a free version of their platform to aid first responders of all types responding COVID-19 pandemic calls. The web-based platform allows users to create safety profiles with possible symptoms, residence floor plans, and other information useful to first responders. This information then assists first responders in prioritizing COVID-19 care response and taking proper precautions before entering residences of those positive for the new coronavirus. Additionally, the collected data is useful in providing insights into how COVID-19 is spreading through communities via the geographic information compiled. 

This Bismarck Tribune: Officials Unveil Mobile App to Help with COVID-19 Contact Tracing in North Dakota

In early April, officials in North Dakota launched a free mobile app to encourage residents to voluntarily track where they’ve been, which in turn could help health officials working to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 conduct contact tracing in the state. Dubbed the Care19 app, the information will additionally aid officials in making data-based decisions on when to relax social distancing guidelines and other COVID-19 provisions. 

Users who download the app will be given a random ID number, and the app will then anonymously document the user’s whereabouts throughout the day, cataloguing places the user visits for 10 minutes or more. If a user tests positive for COVID-19, the individual can consent to having the information from the app released to public health officials.

Governing: Boston Mayor Keeps City Up to Date on Coronavirus with Tech

Boston’s Mayor Marty Walsh launched two new data platforms in April for residents to keep up to date on information about the COVID-19 public health crisis in both the capital city and the entire state of Massachusetts. The dashboards are continuously updated with information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the state's Department of Public Health (MDPH), and illustrate both the impact of COVID-19 in Boston as well as daily tracking of the virus across Massachusetts including information such as how many people have been infected, how many have died, and to which areas the virus has spread.

The Wall Street Journal: Google Offers User Location Data to Health Officials Tackling Coronavirus

In an effort to offer assistance during the unprecedented pandemic, Google will allow public health officials access to its ample storage of data on users’ movements to track the spread of COVID-19. The plan is to use a fraction of the information Google has collected on users, including information from Google Maps, to produce reports on which areas are practicing social-distancing measures and how effective they are. The reports will be posted publicly and show whether certain areas, states or countries are seeing larger flows of traffic through grocery stories, parks, pharmacies, and other locations. In the United States, the data can be shown down to the county level. 

According to the tech giant, this effort will use anonymized historical data that will be published two or three days after data has been collected, and will encompass 121 countries. The company consulted with both the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on this strategy.

Government Technology: Kansas Uses Cellphone Location Data Tool to Track COVID-19/Smart Cities Dive: Chicago Uses Anonymized Cellphone Data to Show Progress of COVID-19 Measures

As the United States enters week six of quarantine and social distancing measures in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, more cities and states are starting to utilize cell phone location data to track the spread of the new coronavirus. Officials from the The Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) announced in late March that they’ll be using a “Social Distancing” dashboard created by Unacast, an analytics firm focusing on location data, which uses GPS data from phones to track COVID-19. The anonymized and aggregated data is able to show at a county level whether residents are obeying local stay-at-home orders or not. Updated daily, the data is accumulated from several sources including public data and data previously purchased from other vendors. 

Chicago’s public health department partnered with BlueDot, an outbreak risk software company, to collect anonymous location data from apps being used on local cell phones. The data can also be utilized to monitor the success of recovery efforts as the situation develops in real time.  Thus far, data has shown that Chicago residents have stayed home nearly 80 percent of the time and that Chicago is successfully flattening the curve of COVID-19. Despite concerns about privacy and using cell phone data, both city officials and BlueDot state that the data is anonymous. BlueDot has also partnered with the Canadian government and the state of California. 

The Boston Globe: Apple, Google to Build Voluntary Contact-Tracing into Their Smartphone Platforms, with Potential to Monitor Billions

Tech giants Apple and Google announced a partnership to add technology to their smartphone platforms that will alert their users if they have come in contact with a person who has COVID-19. The technology is optional for users, but if successfully implemented and with enough usage, it has the potential to monitor approximately a third of the world’s population. The system, known as contract tracing, would alert users on their phones if they have come in contact with an individual positive for COVID-19 and urge them to quarantine or isolate themselves. 

The tech companies will build the technology into their iOS and Android operating systems in two phases: by mid-May, Apple and Google will add the capability for iPhones and Android phones to exchange anonymous information wirelessly via apps run by public health authorities; and then the companies will release structure for public health apps to operationalize.