Skip to main content

Safe and secure: How mobility tracing could be the key to easing lockdown in the UK

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/ESB Professional)

Covid-19 has had a profound impact on all of our lives over the last few months. As is to be expected, many people are keen to return to a life resembling normality, but fears of a second spread of the virus remain. So, the key question being asked is: how can we ease lockdown measures, while keeping the virus under control?

There have been many suggested solutions to this challenge and an effective tracing system seems to be the key. In the UK, contact tracing has been mooted as the most likely method. However, the NHSX app, regarded as an essential component to this process, has received widespread criticism even before its official deployment. This isn’t to say that it won’t be a useful tool, but the app’s dependence on public uptake and accurate data input means it might need further support.

This is where mobility tracing should be considered as an alternative, or at least a supplement to contact tracing. Using aggregated data from telecommunication companies, this method negates concerns over privacy, uptake and overall effectiveness. By deploying this as a tracing method, there can be a more tailored approach to easing lockdown, which is both safer and more effective.

Contact tracing and its drawbacks

Contact tracing apps rely on social network analytics. Using the NHSX app as an example, users who have consented to having their data used become part of an entire network of contacts. Location data is the key here, which can be collected via apps, telecommunication companies and many other ways. Entity resolution is then used to combine and match all these different data sources into a centralised repository.

From this point, users will be asked to input as and when they have tested positive for the virus or if they are experiencing symptoms typically associated with Covid-19. With the user’s data all in one place, social network analytics can track backwards to identify anyone who has been in close proximity in a time interval with the potential spreader, allowing the app to notify them immediately.

If used efficiently, this can be an effective way to control the spread of the virus. However, it relies heavily on two things. Firstly, research suggests at least half the population need to actually opt-in and use the app for it to be effective. A combination of privacy concerns and technological constraints within parts of the general population will make this challenging. Secondly, users must upload their symptoms correctly. This brings about the risk of people either failing to upload their symptoms or uploading inaccurate information which would cause people to isolate needlessly. Ultimately, these two factors are out of the control of government and health officials. There is, however, an alternative method which can be used; one which is less reliant on external factors.

Mobility tracing: a more effective method?

Where contact tracing relies on social network analytics, mobility tracing is powered by location network analytics. It is a broader approach; one less focussed on tracking individual interactions. Instead, it provides patterns in the spread of the virus by location. This regional approach could be particularly beneficial in the UK, where the government has already admitted that the ‘R’ rate, which represents the average number of people that one infected person can expect to pass the virus on to, varies by region.

Using aggregated data from telecommunication companies, which requires no individual information, the flow of people between different locations can be analysed over time and correlated to the spread of the virus. By combining this with data on those who have tested positive for the virus, key locations where infections have spiked can be monitored and regulated accordingly. Meanwhile, using the same technology, major pathways which contribute to the spread of the virus can be identified. These are often areas which act as hubs for moving people around the country, such as Reading or London in the UK. In some countries for example, there are between seven and nine key locations which connect almost 80 per cent of the entire country. The flow of people in and out of these areas can then be restricted where necessary, allowing governments more control over the spread of the virus.

The use of telco data to power this technology removes much of the risk associated with contact tracing and the NHSX app. By using aggregated data, concerns over privacy are negated as the information is grouped and anonymised. Meanwhile, by working with health officials, only data from those who have officially tested positive for the virus will be used. Therefore, this method is not user dependent. This will allow for an approach which is informed by more accurate and actionable insights.

A safer journey back to ‘normal’

There have been suggestions by the government that regional regulations could be issued to tackle the spread of the virus, while relieving restrictions on other parts of the country. To achieve this safer and more tailored approach to easing lockdown, mobility tracing is essential.

By identifying the key areas which contribute to the spread of the virus, or areas in which infections have spiked, government and central health authorities can work with local authorities to manage the spread of the virus in high-risk areas.

This will ultimately allow areas with fewer infections, or less risk of spreading the virus, to be relieved of the stricter measures which inhibit the ability to conduct business as normal. As the capital city, London can naturally be expected to be a high-risk area. However, with enough accurate data, location network analytics could allow areas within the capital to be monitored and regulated individually.

Despite the easing of lockdown measures in the UK, there are many who remain hesitant about returning to work, or meeting loved ones in public spaces. As a result, if the Government is to ease lockdown effectively, it’s vital that it instils confidence. Having an effective tracing method could go a long way to achieving this.

By implementing mobility tracing in addition to (or as a replacement for) contact tracing, the Government will have a tracing method which is reliable, judicious and safe. It will also allow for a more regional approach to easing lockdown. Where there is still a blanket national policy on lockdown, mobility tracing will allow low-risk areas to be opened up more quickly, while high-risk locations are monitored more closely. As a result, the Government can react to changes in the ‘R’ rate in real time. With every day that passes, the need for an effective tracing method increases. Mobility tracing could be the solution the Government is searching for.

Dr. Carlos Pinheiro, Principal Data Scientist, SAS