Scientists and public health officials trying to manage the coronavirus crisis need as much data they can get their hands on in order to craft the measures that could keep us safe. And in 2020, this means deploying clever technology.
The big companies have risen to the challenge. In the US, Apple and Amazon updated their voice assistants, Siri and Alexa, using the authorities’ healthcare advice. Ask your Amazon Echo device “Alexa, what do I do if I think I have Covid-19?” and the voice assistant will ask about your symptoms, travel history and possible exposure to the virus.
Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter are all contributing to a global hackathon project that encourages developers to build technology that addresses pandemic-related issues.
In many ways this is the perfect problem for the agile tech industry: it’s an unprecedented, high-stakes challenge that’s moving fast, with the eyes of the whole world upon it.
On a smaller scale, in the past month there has been a rise in city-specific Covid-19 tracking apps, through which users report their location and symptoms.
In South Korea, where the spread has slowed, much has been made of an app that alerts users if they’ve been in close proximity to someone with the virus. In London, experts are working on tech that could build a sophisticated picture of how the virus is spreading around the city. These are the apps that could help us beat the virus.
Covid Symptom Tracker is a free app designed by Tim Spector, a professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London; his team; and the health data science company ZOE. It launched last week and has already been downloaded two million times.
“The feedback I’ve got is that it changes people’s feeling of powerlessness,” he adds. “People are upset that if their symptoms don’t need them to go to hospital, they feel nobody’s listening to them. GPs don’t want to hear about them, so in a way this app is a form of mass psychotherapy with an element of altruism. By everybody participating, you can help save lives.”
Spector insists this data is going to give us a much better picture of “what the disease is doing, and what percentage of the population is infected mildly”, and his intention is to hand it to the NHS and the UK Government (covid.joinzoe.com).
The NHS, meanwhile, confirmed it will be working with Microsoft, Google, Palantir and London-based Faculty AI to harness a range of data sources and ensure critical equipment is supplied to the medical facilities in greatest need.
Watching the spread
Others have more immediate ambitions. Track Together, which garnered 7,000 users in 24 hours last week, is a website on which people enter their symptoms and their postcode and are given a live display of the number of known cases in their immediate area. It takes 20 seconds to use.
“We’re trying to give transparency to people, so you can see in your neighbourhood — a lot of people potentially have it,” says Guy Nakamura, 28, a digital product development leader from Fulham who built the service remotely with a team of three over a “sleepless” weekend. His partner had been ill with flu-like symptoms, and he’d self-isolated for a week.
“I just thought, ‘Let’s actually get a proper account of potential symptoms so that people realise how serious this is, and how necessary social-distancing measures might be,’ because other people were just carrying on as normal.” (tracktogether.co.uk).
Meanwhile MedShr, a London-based medical start-up that won the Evening Standard Business Award for SME and Start-Up of the Year in 2018, launched Let’s Beat Covid-19 last week. It’s a mobile-first, impressively efficacious symptom tracker that attracted 23,300 users in 48 hours. The company, a self-styled “Instagram for doctors” social network for secure clinical case discussion, also provides curated Covid-19 content daily through the MedShr Open resource (letsbeatcovid.net).
The international effort
“When the number of new infections starts dropping, we hit this period where it’s the epidemiologist playing whack-a-mole,” says Dr Peter Muennig, health policy and management professor at Columbia University in New York, who thinks Nakamura’s app could be vital in slowing future outbreaks in the US.
“Where there’s a flare-up you identify, isolate and track down everyone that was exposed, and that’s when this is really going to become useful,” he says.
South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and mainland China, where reported cases are now well below 100 a day, have relied somewhat controversially on information technology and virtual check-ins to maintain social distancing.
Singapore created the opt-in app TraceTogether, which alerts users if they’ve been in close proximity with a confirmed case of the coronavirus using a public health database. South Korea has a customised app that sounds an alarm and alerts officials if people stray from a quarantine zone.
Data privacy campaigners have rightly raised concerns about the speed with which tracking apps are being developed, and the relaxing of regulations designed to prevent data abuse.
“I worry that no tools developed this quickly will have the security measures in place to handle the complexity of this much data from that amount of people being gathered in one place,” says Stephanie Hankey, co-founder of the data privacy NGO Tactical Tech.
Last week The Economist cited the growth of the “coronopticon” in Asia — data networks to keep tabs on the pandemic and, by extension, citizens.
Anonymised mobile phone location data is also being used here and in the US to observe whether those who are self-reporting symptoms are moving around in their communities.
Earlier this month, Israel passed an emergency law to repurpose intelligence hardware to trace mobile phone data for tracking infected people. But, while fatalities are exponentially rising and economies are being shuttered, we are fighting blind and underresourced.
The hopes of Londoners such as Nakamura is that, with all of our help, we can get on the right track.