4 ways how mobile apps can help manage life during COVID-19

Over the last several weeks, we’ve seen many examples of (mobile) technologies related to COVID-19 in the media. Organizations and initiatives are using these technologies to fight the new coronavirus and to also help prevent people from getting infected.

In the wake of the virus, indeed a huge number of different COVID-19 apps and technologies are being developed across the world. It’s interesting to take a look at what types of solutions these various technologies or apps offer.

I see four main categories: contact tracing, quarantine management, symptom checking, and pandemic information. These solutions are either offered as a single solution or in combination in a single app. 

1. Contact tracing

Contact tracing apps help health institutions track down who could be infected when somebody has been identified as having the coronavirus.

In general, contact tracing uses the Bluetooth in phones to make contact with other mobile phones. In that way, once someone has been identified, it can be backtraced through the person’s phone to who they had contact with. Thus, through the development of an effective tracing program, the potentially infected people can be contacted and put directly into isolation, to prevent further spreading of the virus.

Contact tracing apps are usually carried out in collaboration with the national institutions monitoring the spread.

2. Quarantine management

These apps help ensure that people stay in quarantine when they need to. They use geofencing in order to know where the mobile phone of the person is who is in quarantine. This facilitates the monitoring of that person.

3. Symptom checking

These kinds of apps and websites allow people to check their symptoms, if they are like those of COVID-19. In addition, they support people to get the help if/when needed. These apps are also offered in cooperation with trusted health institutions, like hospitals and general practitioners.

4. Pandemic information

There are many COVID-19 apps giving updates on the spread of the pandemic. Generic information being collected includes, i.e. how many people are infected, who are exhibiting symptoms, which countries, etc. A statistically viable percentage of the population has to use these apps for the authorities to be able to effectively use the information.

1. Contact tracing

Unsurprisingly, there is an avalanche of different contact tracing initiatives. These initiatives are largely focused on collecting data about individual health statuses related to COVID-19.

In some cases, organizations use this information with consent from the user. Otherwise it is by governmental obligation, raising valid privacy issues. The information is then shared with a public trusted body, such as the government itself, or with leading health organizations.

In Europe, there are many different initiatives and there is, as yet, no coordinated effort. In Europe, privacy concerns are very high which makes it more difficult to quickly create a government-backed app. That said, Angela Merkel has mentioned that she believes in contact tracing.  

A few examples

There is an initiative that is called PEPP-PT, an open source protocol for the exchange of data which is anonymous and led by a trusted organization. The protocol should facilitate that hospitals can create an app that collects personal data anonymously and can share this with other organizations if needed.

A couple of other initiatives have been similarly established between coalitions of universities, scientists and government. Some include: BlueTrace ProtocolPrivateTracerCoEpi; and Covid Watch.

India has, for example, launched an official app from the central government called ‘Aarogya Setu’. The app is for contact tracing and also employs drone technology to fuel app data and geofencing. Critically, this will also be deployed to ease the transition to ‘unlock’ after lockdowns in certain Indian states.

The ‘Aarogya Setu’ app also provides an alert level if someone is in the vicinity of another who has tested COVID-19 positive. On top of this, different Indian states are creating and distributing other apps. The app, as well as the others, all provide a standardized information package about the virus to help raise the general level of awareness and provide information more extensively.

2. Quarantine management

Around the world, many people either voluntarily quarantined themselves or were requested to, due to recent travel for example.

In Poland, it became mandatory for residents to download an app called ‘Home Quarantine’ found in Google Play. Quarantined residents received randomly timed messages which they would have to reply to within a limited timeframe of 20 minutes. They need to take a selfie that showed them in their house, using geo-location to confirm they were indeed home. A unique initiative.

3. Symptom checking and advice

There are also examples of healthcare institutions creating COVID-19 apps in which users can share their symptoms, and get help with their diagnosis. 

For example, the Dutch OLVG hospital’s app ‘Luscii’ connects people with a team of online experts working for the hospital. In that way, the hospital can guide people from a distance, and also gain insights into how many potential cases they may have in their specific service area.

In the UK, the ‘COVID Symptom Tracker’ is the third most popular app in Apple’s UK store. It’s also second in Google Play’s new releases chart for the country. Researchers at Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals and King’s College University, London developed the app in just three days, in conjunction with the nutrition advice start-up, Zoe Global Limited. There are two parts to the app: health information and symptom tracking.

4. Pandemic information analysis

For capturing, monitoring and analyzing the spread of the virus, there are apps like HealthLynked Covid-19Tracker.

There are also initiatives such as the interactive messaging platform of the World Health Organization (WHO), supported by Sprinklr. Users can voluntarily provide information about their symptoms, whether they are infected or not. In that way, they contribute to limiting the spread.

Mandatory vs. voluntary

In open democracies, the question becomes one of privacy and the importance of anonymity weighed against the overall protection of public health. Which is more important to preserve and protect?

Every country has different laws, ethical practices and standards, and this is an unprecedented situation. Because of that, many COVID-19 apps and initiatives are unfolding each day, making this a hotly debated topic.

China and South Korea

The most prominent case of mandatory requirements to use such COVID-19 apps can be found, as perhaps expected, in China. Looking at the efficacy of China’s adaptation of ‘surveillance’ technology and use of public data, one can see how this can be used to engage the effective ‘unlock’ down.

China already has a vast infrastructure to collect data about its citizens (i.e. public video surveillance, citizen ratings, etc.). Therefore, it has been easier for China to use this data and pre-existing vehicles to monitor and contain the virus’s impact.

People in China have been using an app, where they are given color codes (red, yellow and green). The color depends on the movement history and the likeliness that one could infect others. The code determines whether the user can move around outside, or not. For example, a user has been in a place, or in close contact with people who are infected. He or she will be coded red and needs to go into quarantine for two weeks. Once out of quarantine, and if there are no more symptoms, the user will be coded as green or orange.

Some governments oblige their citizens to download mobile apps, so they can monitor people. This includes monitoring what people do when they are in quarantine, such as in South Korea. 

Meanwhile, in Singapore, people have been using the app ‘TraceTogether’ to trace who the (voluntary) users of the app have been in contact with, using their phone’s Bluetooth technology. The efficacy of the app in Singapore is questionable however, as adoption of the app has not been widespread.

Health vs. privacy?

The four solutions explored above show varying levels of promise in helping to contain the virus. That is, if enough people use them, and if data use is protected and limited to COVID-19 (or other future disease) management.

Combining the 4 solutions in a single app would arguably be the most effective, right? The contact tracing, quarantine management, symptom checker and meta information derived from the pandemic information analysis can be leveraged together to fight COVID-19 and to help us manage our lives safely and smartly.

If all 4 solutions are offered in combination, citizens could:

  • Get information and help when they show symptoms;
  • Know if they have come into contact with any others that have been infected and be alerted to stay inside;
  • Get support while remaining in quarantine, and finally;
  • Have real-time insights into the virus spread.

Such a powerful app would make it much easier for countries to manage people’s health and the infection rate, especially when economies need to open up again.

Inform to help protect

The wish for privacy has an economic price which in Europe and most democracies people are apparently willing to take. But it will become more part of a discussion when lockdown and economic consequences will be felt. China shows for the time being that if it comes to fighting COVID-19 and reopening the economy it has strong arguments to collect so much data from its citizens.

PlotProjects believes that if you inform people well about what data is being collected and how it is (or will be) used, as well as inform them about how they can stop providing the information (eg. delete an app) that many people will want to download and use the apps to protect the health of themselves and their loved ones.

The logic and privacy issues at the core of this reflect those we currently discuss with the access that Google has to our data, for instance, which collects much more information on us. Google knows the searches people do, the videos people watch, the maps and routes they take. Because those functionalities that Google offers us, do things for us as well and make our lives a little easier, or more entertaining.

Likewise, a powerful COVID-19 app that is used with informed consent by the people can enable health authorities and governments to help protect people and to get them back into living their lives.

Added value of location intelligence

PlotProjects believes that location intelligence technology, in particular, can play a critical role in health intelligence and keeping people safe – during lockdowns and the eventual ‘unlockdowns’.

To know where people are, what their symptoms are, how the virus is spread and to inform people about it all, location data is crucial. The meta information derived from an exact location for instance, can make an enormous difference in managing a disease crisis like COVID-19 that has shutdown entire countries and much of the world.

PlotProjects has developed the functionalities used for quarantine, contact tracing and location intelligence which individuals, governments and health institutions can use to stem infection. Given the sensitivity of data privacy from one country to the next, PlotProjects’ SDK has a flexible configuration, adjustable to said requirements. 

By design, no data is collected for users who opt out from location and/or notification services. All the location insights are encrypted and associated with anonymous IDs. Data is owned by an app user and controlled by the app owners. PlotProjects acts as a data processor and follows standard data security protocols.

Where do you stand on health vs. privacy? Where do we draw the lines to protect both? Do you believe in a single app that combines all of these 4 (and other) solution areas? Share your thoughts with us at PlotProjects.  

How does PlotProjects contribute?

PlotProjects is committed to supporting app developers using location technology to better manage living with COVID-19. PlotProjects is offering its location tracking technology for free for up to 100.000 monthly tracked users (Pricing Growth Plan). We are also supporting apps with a fair pricing policy that need to reach more than 100.000 monthly tracked users (Enterprise Plan).

Organizations can leverage our location-tech expertise for contact tracing, quarantine support, monitoring virus spread, crowd management, facilitating community help initiatives and so much more.

Learn more about what PlotProjects is doing and how we can manage COVID-19 together so we can all live our lives smartly and safely.

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