Big Brother or Bright Idea? Using Mobile Technology to Control Coronavirus Outbreaks


27th March 2020

by  Paul Fawcett

Mobility Product Manager

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is forcing us to change the way we function in society; from the way we work, to the way we shop, and even how we socialise. But what role can mobile technology play in all of this? Over the years, mobile technology has revolutionised the way we work, rest, and play. There’s no denying it’s changed our lives, but the question we now face is can it save our lives? 

South Korea had a large outbreak but has succeeded in flattening the curve of new infections. Mainly by a massive testing programme, enabling it to isolate and treat many people soon after they became infected. 

South Korea was the first to use technology to help fight the virus primarily with tracking and surveillanceCCTV and the tracking of bank cards and mobile phones were all used to identify who to test. Health authorities were able to find out who an infected person had close contact with, and smartphone apps were used to show the locations of infections with SMS updates about new local cases. This helped everyone stay at home.  

New rules in force now: you must stay at home. 

That was the text I got yesterday from the UK Government. By now, we all know that the most important action we can all take in fighting coronavirus is to stay at home. This helps to save lives through reducing the rate of infection to manageable numbers.  

But should technology be used to make sure we comply? In the UK we have always felt uncomfortable about personal surveillance. But with the recent Coronavirus bill, the UK government has sweeping new powers, including being able to track the whereabouts of the British public.  

The major UK mobile operators are in talks with the government about using phone location data to monitor whether the “Stay at Home” coronavirus limitation measures are working. The location data of smartphones will, however, be restricted to aggregated anonymous data and does not involve tracking of individuals. The information provided could be used to observe trends ipublic movements, particularly in London, where there are still platforms and trains crowded with people trying to get to work. 

Apps are being used to fight the virus 

We all use apps in our everyday life and there is no limit to what you can use them for. Across the globe, mobile apps are also playing a part in fighting the virus but at the same time eroding some of our freedom. 

The World Health Organization is working on an app for Android, iOS and the web “to help contain and mitigate COVID-19”.  

Singapore’s TraceTogether app uses Bluetooth to identify when users are within 2m of another person for more than 30 minutes. 

Poland has launched a smartphone app for people under a mandatory 14-day quarantine to send selfies to let authorities know they are staying home. 

In Indonesia, an app shows the latest data of patients positive for COVID-19, as well as people under general monitoring and patients under surveillance. 

Taiwan has implemented a geo-fence using people’s mobile phones that alerts local authorities if a quarantined user leaves their home or switches off their handset for too long.  

In the UK, Researchers have launched a coronavirus tracking smartphone app that asks users to put in personal details like age and postcode and to report on whether they feel healthy. The app will help health officials build up a picture of how the virus is spreading through the UK and what can be done to help areas most at risk. 

One interesting use of technology that we may see soon is the use of thermal imaging smartphones capable of instantly identifying people with a high temperature in queues for the local supermarketOriginally designed to expose anomalies in temperatures for emergency services and construction professionals, it can easily be set up to highlight people potentially running a fever as they attempt to enter a commercial place. 

Where do we go from here? 

What all these scenarios show is that when used to best effect, mobile technology combined with the massive computing power now available behind it can be put to positive use. In this case to both contain, manage, and in many ways prevent disease. What some might see as surveillance many others will probably see as a liberating safety shield enabling the vast majority to go about their daily lives whilst protecting them from contacting those unfortunate enough to be suffering.  

You might also like…