Using various technologies for COVID-19 contact tracing has been a key method for governments in Asia to help contain the spread of the pandemic.

While there is no one method that is perfect for containing COVID-19, the impact of the pandemic has certainly thrown a spotlight on the crucial need for a rapid, integrated approach to tackling such threats to our health – and disruption to virtually every aspect of our daily lives.

Data is the key that holds the potential to unlock vital understanding of the invisible activity and spread of COVID-19.

While location data is critical in understanding the spread of the virus, we have seen how dealing with the complexity, the scale of data and required speed of response requires a highly sophisticated data fusion platform that brings together many different types of data.

Photo mage of Richard Baker

We have also seen what technology can do and how location data can be applied to contact tracing and intelligence, but the question is: what’s next? How could it be harnessed to fulfil an even wider variety of purposes?

DigiconAsia discusses the issues with Richard Baker, CEO of GeoSpock.

How could current contract tracing efforts be improved?

Baker: Countries like South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore have demonstrated the effectiveness of widespread testing combined with vigorous track and trace initiatives, including the use of technology solutions such as mobile applications to aid the contact tracing process. However, just by looking at potential applications using different levels of information, there are indeed ways that it can be improved.

For instance, taking current contact tracing efforts one step further, a person could be alerted if hyper-localised cases have occurred in the neighbourhood or at their place of work instead of just when he or she has already encountered someone in near proximity. Another way is to enable government-level analytics for region-specific policies.

As the region slowly reopens its economy, it will be much harder to control the rate of transmission. Using analytics would allow governments to quickly identify potential virus hotspots and react proactively with an appropriate level of response – for example, by placing individual areas on a smaller scaled lockdown rather than the whole country.

Essentially, a hybrid system between human and technology is what’s needed to ensure successful contact tracing. Technology works hand-in-hand with physical teams to ensure efficient mobilisation of healthcare professionals and the government. Singapore, for instance, is smaller in size than other Asian countries, so things move faster when a COVID-19 case is confirmed.

For any technological contact-tracing tool to work, it has to have a high percentage of the country using it, which starts with increased education and awareness. Questions around whether data will be repurposed for uses unrelated to COVID-19 or if cybercriminals could enter and extract data, should be proactively addressed. People need to get comfortable with conversations around data privacy to achieve complete readiness and acceptance for the contact tracing efforts to be successful.

What goes behind the sheer amount of data collected from contact tracing efforts?

Baker: Contact tracing tools are definitely capable of collecting vast amounts of data. However, this is not the case for Singapore because TraceTogether is Bluetooth-powered and does not collect location data. Bluetooth signals are logged and stored on a user’s mobile phone for up to 25 days and will only be accessed by the central authority if a user tests positive for Covid-19 and consents to their data logs being uploaded to the server.

If these devices did use location data, that would result in another conversation altogether because it takes into account not just location, but time and situational data as well. We may be dealing with situational complexity, an extreme scale of data, which requires high levels of flexibility and required speed of response.

What is next for the use of location data – how else can it be applied beyond this pandemic?

Baker: There are many sources of location data and each could be used in a wide variety of potential combinations.

  • Close-contact data are Bluetooth signals and allow manual reporting to human contact tracers – the type of data collected in Bluetooth-powered tools.
  • Fine-grained location data uses GPS signals from mobile devices or wearables. This is not used in contact-tracing efforts today, but can be applied for connected bus or train data combined with journey details, ride-hailing applications and social media check-ins.
  • Coarse-grained location data goes one steps further. These are your mobile cell-tower network-based location data from telecoms providers.
  • Supplemental contextual data can provide an overview of hospital capacities, resource levels, Covid-19 testing outcomes, road and public transport use, crowd-level monitoring via CCTV, to manage virus hotspots in the nation even weather conditions. This is the level government bodies will most likely apply onto a proactive approach,.  

There will also be an increased use of Internet and the general online space. We’re already seeing this in South-east Asia. According to Temasek, the region’s Internet economy was worth US$100 billion last year and it is expected to grow to US$300 billion by 2025.

Taking into consideration the impact of the current pandemic, the region has tremendous potential for further growth thanks to fundamental consumer behaviour changes, growing Internet connectivity and digital push from the retail and F&B sectors due to national lockdowns. For these sectors, we can expect a combination of offline and online experiences as businesses start using location analytics to gauge consumer movement, which will also play a part in the recovery of the region’s economy.

We are still a long way from achieving full resilience. Innovation and exploration will be continuous as the situation evolves and as new datasets become available – so the ability to practice flexibility is paramount.