Mobile data is a powerful weapon in tracking and preventing pandemics

a young woman using her phone at home

There are many heroes emerging from the COVID-19 emergency. I think essential workers like my sister who is a doctor, supermarket employees, postal workers and many others put themselves at risk of infection, but must work while most of us stay home to slow the spread.  Although we all rely heavily on internet access and mobile phones to work, learn, and stay connected, less has been written about how telecom networks are being used as a tool to prevent further outbreaks.

Limitations of healthcare systems

It’s hard to make sense of the magnitude of the current crisis – now more than 3.5 million confirmed cases at the time of publishing. And it is getting worse – the disease has already spread to more than 180 countries or almost the entire planet.  And while managing the pandemic, we’re learning about the severe limitations of our health systems to manage future outbreaks. 

Health systems are designed to do two things: identify the sick and find ways to cure or treat them. They actually play a smaller role than we think in helping us to understand how the disease will spread. By the time someone is positively diagnosed by a health worker, it’s too late. In one disturbing case, our worst nightmare took the form of an elderly churchgoer.  

Identified as Patient 31, she refused to be tested twice despite showing early symptoms. She attended church with several hundred other worshippers, ate at a buffet, and spent time at a spa. Korea’s COVID-19 caseload skyrocketed shortly after and her hometown of Daegu became ground zero for the country’s crisis with 7,300 people infected and more than 50 dead.  Super spreaders like Patient 31 showed that being tested isn’t enough.  

The role of data in healthcare

a man being screened for COVID-19 by an examiner in a Hazmat suit at a medical centre

Patient 31 showed us that the real problem in managing epidemics is data: without knowing who could potentially be infected and who they could infect, we are all working blind. John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine argued that data collection is the prime focus on current efforts to model the spread. “Most of the work that modelers have done recently or in the first part of the epidemic hasn’t really been coming up with models and predictions… At the moment, we’ve got no data to tie that model down.”

This is where telecom networks have been critical in efforts to spread the disease. They provide one of the few sources of data to help decision-makers to slow the spread. In South Korea and China, the governments used mobile data of infected patients to track where they had gone to prioritize testing in these “hot zones”.  In Israel, likely learning from the Asian experience, the government passed emergency legislation to allow authorities to access mobile phone data to track infected and potentially infected individuals in their efforts to slow down the spread. Government recognized the value of the data telecom operators had access to and were now mobilizing it to fight the disease.

And it’s gone further. Companies and entrepreneurs have found ways to use data to empower citizens to make better decisions. In China, all three major telecom operators have sent more than 950 million text messages to remind subscribers to self-quarantine. In South Korea, developers created apps to alert users to avoid high-risk areas identified by the government. 

an elderly man checking his phone in his bedroom

This isn’t the first time telecom firms mobilized to tackle global health challenges. Korea Telecom (KT) had created a platform to support efforts to prevent outbreaks of dengue fever. KT’s Global Epidemic Prevention Platform (GEPP) allows health officials to identify high-risk areas and provide real-time data on potential outbreaks. KT recently created a partnership with the Ghanian health services to roll out the program. Telecom operators have also used their networks and data to increase vaccination rates and improve access to family planning.

Potential challenges 

However, many believe privacy rights could be severely compromised by the collection of data. In the UK, the government has acknowledged that the data from an NHS contact tracing app could allow senior officials to “de-anonymize” users. In the U.S., the agency responsible for enforcing privacy rules has stated it would waive enforcement for public health purposes. Amnesty International’s head, Michael Kleinman, recently said, “[C]ountries’ efforts to contain the virus must not be used as an excuse to create a greatly expanded and more intrusive digital surveillance system.” Eventually, governments must put new rules in place to address citizen concerns, requiring innovators to develop tools that meet public health needs while still protecting privacy.

To manage future pandemics, we can definitely do more with telecom firms. We should also ensure the rollout of 5G networks integrates ways to tackle future outbreaks. 5G provides exponential levels of connectivity across a variety of devices beyond our phones. That means health experts would have access to greater sources of data and potentially deploy more sophisticated sensors to ringfence outbreaks. 

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