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Why current contact tracing efforts must be improved

(Image credit: Future)

The global Covid-19 pandemic has thrown a spotlight on the crucial need for a rapid, joined-up approach to tackling such threats to our health – and virtually every aspect of our daily lives. Unprepared for the crisis, governments have been forced to react by taking unprecedented actions while health services have been pushed to breaking points, with critical supply chains disrupted. Moreover, recent projections estimate that the impact of the virus is likely to persist in a material way until 2022, with new cases expected until 2024.

As the UK begins easing its lockdown, technology holds the key to navigating back to normality and potentially contributing to a coordinated national response. The Bluetooth-based contact tracing approach to combat the transmission of Covid-19 has already been widely adopted in Asian countries. This is arguably more efficient than traditional contact tracing methods that require large staffs to interview patients about their whereabouts or even knock on the doors of contacts. However, it also has several areas in need of improvement, such as offering more incentives to encourage more people to use the app or tapping on other areas of technology to expand its functionality and efficiency. To get ahead of the pandemic, it is necessary to shift from a reactionary to a proactive approach, with data-driven decisions at its core.

An incomplete picture

The tracing apps currently in the news are Bluetooth based, and are useful in determining when those infected cannot recall whom they had been in close proximity with for an extended duration. However, their uptake globally has proven slow, with many raising concerns over data privacy. While such Bluetooth apps do not collect location data, this is exactly the area where contact tracing could be further improved.

Bluetooth-only contact tracing is a reactionary solution, not a proactive one – if you are close enough to catch a Bluetooth signal, you are close enough to have already caught the virus. Bluetooth on its own only tells people the ‘who’, and not so much of the ‘where’ – a person travelling on a train could infect many people at opposite ends of the country in a single day. In addition, signals could be received through the windows of an isolation booth and can propagate further than airborne viral spread, providing inaccurate data. Whilst helping reduce onward infections with post-exposure mitigation, it isn’t effective for pre-exposure prevention. This all suggests we should be looking for a better technology solution.

The prevalence of communications technology in the form of widespread mobile phone adoption, when harnessed fully, can provide sophisticated environmental sensing. When combined with additional datasets and the ability to carry out rapid large-scale location data analytics, it would provide full-situational contextual intelligence, which in turn can enable true data-driven decision making.

Understanding the virus progression with location data

Central to the UK Government’s plan to restart the economy is taking a step by step approach, with non-essential services to resume when conditions allow. An understanding of the progression of the virus enables low-risk or low-exposure areas and industries to reopen, minimising both short-term and long-term economic disruption. It also allows continuity planning with an early-warning system to alert businesses to regional supply-chain disruptions or unavailability of public transportation services.

Data is the key that holds the potential to unlock vital understanding of our invisible enemy's activity. This can be in the form of close-contact data, such as Bluetooth signals, or fine-grained location data, such as GPS signals from mobile devices or social media check-ins. Another category is coarse-grained location data, which includes government place-of-residency records and network-based location trilateration from telecoms providers using mobile phone towers. Meanwhile, supplementary contextual data can be in the form of Covid-19 testing outcomes, like crowd monitoring via CCTV or even weather conditions.

The use of location intelligence is crucial for understanding when and where the virus is progressing – and underpinning everything from healthcare resource management and business continuity planning to exposure-risk assessment for individuals and track-and-trace activity with granular containment, isolation and travel policies. However, it’s important to remember that flexibility is paramount as the pandemic evolves and as new datasets become available or new outcomes are desired. In addition to the complex nature of the data ecosystem, some of the datasets will be machine generated, which means very large amounts of data will need to be stored and processed for insights and analytics.

Dealing with complexities

Dealing with large and complex datasets while maintaining rapid speed of response requires a highly sophisticated and specialised database. The ability to fuse different data together and extract new insights can guide the design of new policies and guidelines.

For example, individuals who have encountered someone who has tested positive for Covid-19 would be alerted via the contact tracing app, but they could also be informed if hyper-localised cases have occurred in their neighbourhood or at their place of work. This would enable them to stay at home or avoid visiting public places to minimise exposure risk without a nationwide lockdown.

Healthcare managers could be alerted to any regional growth in infection rates, enabling them to shift medical staff and resources to where they are needed most. In addition, any nationwide analytics could enable the government to identify virus hotspots and react proactively and appropriately by placing individual districts or regions in isolation. This kind of data-driven decision making, along with real-time monitoring and management of physical world systems, is critical when it comes to improving real-world outcomes.

Needless to say, speed is absolutely vital – insights are only useful if they arrive in a timely manner, as decisions must be made rapidly when you're intervening in a ‘live’ situation to drive better outcomes. Unpicking the current lockdown period without triggering a second wave of the virus is a complex challenge – and that's just the start. Globalisation is increasing the likelihood that we will face future pandemics, with technology holding the key to navigating a path back to normality for all of us.

Richard Baker, CEO, GeoSpock