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Will Apps Save Us During Future Pandemics? | SignalWire

Will Apps Save Us During Future Pandemics?

Could smartphones track the spread of coronavirus? Contact tracing – the process of identifying people who have come into contact with infected individuals – has always been part of infectious disease control. In 2020, cell phones track so much of our movement already. By tapping into this data, researchers are hoping to track the spread of coronavirus and warn people who may have come into contact with the infected.

Projects using location data have been popping up everywhere in the world, from Asia to Europe, and now North America, and how they function largely depends on the country utilizing them. Privacy laws vary, and one country’s attempt at mass surveillance would not necessarily fly in another, especially when it comes to restricting movement. In places like the US, the public tends to not trust the kind of data gathering that has already happened in other countries like South Korea. With the reality that data can be used and exploited, the value of privacy may have to be weighed against the possibility of saving millions of lives.

It’s unclear if location data harvesting related to coronavirus would even be possible in the US. The first step in a project like this becoming a reality is widespread, rapid testing and diagnoses, which has been very slow in many countries. The other challenge is that many infected with the coronavirus spread it before they even show symptoms. That means no matter how many resources are put into developing a tool to track movement, it may never be ahead of the spreading virus.

It’s tempting to try, though. In China, an app was developed to tell families when and where it’s safe to go out. An app in Europe is being developed to send alerts to others as soon as someone tests positive for the virus. These apps depend on the network effect, which is the phenomenon of a service becoming more useful the more people use it. Vaccines follow this model, as well as social media and information sharing platforms like Twitter. Apps to track pandemics would depend entirely on most people using them and sharing their information – hopefully, voluntarily. And in the case of COVID-19, an app would have to catch up to the spreading of the highly contagious virus in order to truly be useful.

So how would an app like this work? In theory, phones are already logging locations all the time. So if the owner of a phone tested positive for something like coronavirus, health officials would be alerted immediately, as would owners of any other phones that recently came into contact with that phone. As simple as this sounds, all the details of how it would work would still need to be sorted out.

In some cases, telecom and tech companies would have to share anonymous information they’ve already gathered in order for something like this to work. Even without individuals being identified, that data could reveal trends about hotspots where the disease is being spread. The other option would be to develop an app where people would voluntarily share location and health information. The problem with a voluntary app is that it’s only useful if most people use it – so it would have to catch on rapidly.

A couple of app projects have appeared in the US, and their creators are banking on the voluntary use of the app spreading quicker than the virus itself. MIT developed an open-source app called Private Kit: Safe Paths, which shares location data between phones to alert people if they’ve come into contact with others who have tested positive for the virus. This particular app is based on the voluntary participation of users and the voluntary sharing of medical information with health officials and other users. The MIT app has been designed with the privacy of individuals in mind and as a priority, not only to comply with privacy laws but also to keep peace of mind among citizens. Those reporting their positive status remain anonymous, while allowing you to see if you’ve crossed paths with that individual. Detailed GPS trails are not available for viewing, only areas of high risk.

If apps like these manage to help mitigate the spread of something as contagious as coronavirus, a helpful precedent will already be in place during any kind of future outbreak. As different countries take their own individual approaches to similar projects of this kind, it remains to be seen how tech like cell phones will shape the outcomes of the current pandemic, and any yet to come.