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Scientists suggest governments create mobile tracking app to track people exposed to coronavirus

ByCindy J. Daddario

Mar 20, 2020

Scientists want to use a mobile app to help governments track, test and isolate people exposed to COVID-19.

Three researchers at the University of Oxford want to create an application that will serve as a control center to deal with

. The app could do everything from sharing information about the coronavirus to tracking contacts with other people to testing and even delivering food.

This approach could replace contact tracing, a tactic that has helped several Asian countries control the outbreak in their communities. The app could also boost herd immunity faster, which could reduce the impact of the virus.

In a blog post on the Big Data Institute website, Professor Christophe Fraser of the Big Data Institute at the University of Oxford said the app could be a solution for one of the most dangerous elements of COVID-19[female[feminine, the fact that people without symptoms can pass the virus to others.

“Our analysis suggests that almost half of coronavirus transmissions occur early in the infection phase, before symptoms appear, so we need a fast and efficient mobile app to alert people who have been exposed, ”he said. “If you are diagnosed with coronavirus, people you have recently been in contact with will receive a message advising them to self-isolate. ”

Fraser is the author of the proposal with David Bonsall, Big Data Institute, University of Oxford, UK, and Michael Parker, Wellcome Center for Ethics and the Humanities and Ethox Center, University of Oxford, UK.


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The team proposes that the app be the central clearinghouse for all coronavirus information, health services, and instructions. A person could use the app to request a test if symptoms develop and to request food deliveries if self-isolation becomes necessary. The app keeps track of other people the user comes into contact with in the community. If the app user is positive, the results go directly to a central server and suggest quarantine or social distancing measures for the individual and people known to be possible contacts.

In the same blog post, Bonsall said that not everyone needs to use the mobile app for it to work, but they rely on goodwill towards their fellow human beings to generate a user base.

“If, with the help of the app, the majority of individuals self-isolate showing symptoms and the majority of their contacts can be traced, we have a chance to stop the epidemic,” a- he declared. “To work, this approach must be integrated into a national program, not supported by independent application developers.”

China’s approach to tracking apps and the coronavirus

China has used an app to monitor the spread of the virus and the movement of people. In China, people had to use the app if they wanted to be in public spaces and use public transportation. The app monitored the person’s movements and recorded their coronavirus status in a central database. The app gave each user a green, yellow, or red code to set limits on a person’s behavior: free movement, local movement only, or quarantine.
The Chinese app collected user data in three ways:

  • Proximity detection between phones
  • GPS co-location
  • Scan the QR code when entering and exiting places without cellular connectivity, such as underground buildings

The team in Britain want people to use them voluntarily, as opposed to the stricter controls used in China. Researchers believe this approach would be more acceptable to people in democratic countries.

Digital transformation for contact tracing

In China, contact search was as important as containment to control the spread of the virus. In the 2019 Joint WHO-China Coronavirus Disease Mission Report, officials reported that in Wuhan, more than 1,800 teams of epidemiologists, with a minimum of five people per team, have traced tens of thousands of contacts per day, adding that “contact tracing is thorough.”

Once a person has a confirmed case of the coronavirus, public health officials document the person’s activities and contacts, including family members, colleagues, friends, and healthcare providers. The next step is to contact all of these people and screen them for the coronavirus. After this initial screening, public health officials follow up with these contacts to watch for symptoms.

In Singapore, the authorities found 6,000 people, using a combination of CCTV, police investigation, and labor-intensive detective work footage, including a simple phone call. The UK team suggests that the app could replace a week of manual contract tracing with an instant signal transmitted to and from a central server.

How to build trust in the app

The authors of the proposal made these recommendations to encourage people to use the app:

  • Oversight by an inclusive and transparent advisory board
  • Publication of ethical principles for the application
  • Guarantees of equity of access and treatment
  • Use of a transparent and auditable algorithm
  • Establish assessment and research to prepare for future outbreaks
  • Control and protection of data use
  • Sharing data and knowledge with other countries

The proposal is titled “Sustainable containment of COVID-19 using smartphones in China: scientific and ethical foundations for implementing similar approaches in other contexts”.
The Big Data Institute analyzes large and complex data sets to understand the causes, prevention, and treatment of disease. BDI researchers develop, test and deploy methods for acquiring and analyzing information for large clinical research studies.

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Researchers at the Big Data Institute in the UK want to use the manual process of digital contact tracing with a mobile app that can help with tracking, testing and even food delivery.

Image: Big Data Institute

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