Geospatial technology, or geographic information systems (GIS), has become an essential instrument in healthcare. The technology is at the core of contact tracing, syndromic surveillance, virus hot spot prediction, and quarantine alert systems, with more similar projects currently in medical app development and soon to be put into operation.
Let’s look at the prominent GIS applications implemented so far and their implications for the future of geospatial technology and society as a whole.
Contact tracing apps
Contact tracing is a conventional public health practice used to track close contacts of an infected individual and thus forestall further disease transmission.
The first adopters of contact tracing systems chose to utilize GPS-based proximity detection. This type of a mobile healthcare app continuously registers the owner’s location data and transmits it to a public health database for analysis and contact identification.
When someone they cross paths with for an extended time is tests positive to a virus, the owner gets a notification, specifying when and where the contact happened without disclosing personal details.
From the technological standpoint, using GPS for contact tracing proved a sound decision, as it is a low-cost proven solution used in multiple modern apps. It determines location with moderate to high accuracy depending on conditions. Thirdly, it requires little time and effort to be adopted.
Quarantine alert systems
If a virus is transmitted mainly through close contact with infected individuals, countries around the world impose measures that restrict the movement of confirmed and potential carriers, commonly placing them in a mandatory quarantine.
While some governments rely solely on their citizens’ sense of responsibility to stay isolated, others take the trust-but-verify approach and introduce manual or automated control mechanisms.
One of such mechanisms is geofencing. Geofencing alert systems help authorities detect quarantine violators almost in real time.
Their working principle is simple but efficient: authorities set a virtual boundary around the person’s place of quarantine, and as soon as their mobile phone or wearable device crosses the perimeter, an alert to an authorized agency is set off.
The authorities claim the information gathered is confidential and strictly for health management purposes, yet the geofencing system still raises some privacy concerns since it works only for the carriers using mobile services of privately-owned telecom companies.
Among the most notable global-scale initiatives are disease maps and dashboards that provide close-to-real-time insights into population mobility patterns and symptom display, allowing the accurate prediction of the virus spread and timely actions.
In the context of COVID-19, contact tracing came to be the pillar of the global response to the virus. Still, the processes need to be automated and streamlined to make a difference. The countries hit earliest and hardest by the disease, such as China, South Korea, and India, were among the first to launch contact tracing apps; they were soon followed by Australia and countries in the Middle East and Europe.
However, due to serious civil liberty concerns, numerous governments opted against GPS tracking. In the spring of 2020, two major GPS alternatives were developed: the Singapore-developed BlueTrace protocol that employs Bluetooth Low Energy and a centralized report processing, and the Exposure Notification system by Google and Apple that utilizes a combination of Bluetooth, cryptography, and decentralized report processing.
The best-known app of the kind is the Chinese post-lockdown colored health code system, but there were others leveraging geospatial tech to keep track of quarantine breakers.
An app launched in Gujarat, India, is equipped with both geofencing and GIS mapping technologies, allowing the government to not only detect a quarantine breach, but also to track the movement of both the self-isolated and the violators.
The digital fence technology in Taiwan identifies a person’s location based on proximity to the closest cell tower, which the authorities claim is less privacy-intruding.
Hong Kong relies on a different privacy-preserving geofencing technology. Upon arriving in the city, each person is required to download the StayHomeSafe mobile app and wear an electronic bracelet.
The app samples the communication signals in the person’s home such as Wi-Fi, cellular, and Bluetooth and creates a unique residence signature. When the app does not receive the signals, it alerts the government of the quarantine breach.
Google, Facebook, and Apple developed proprietary mobility dashboards using anonymized location data they had been routinely collecting from their users.
While Google and Apple base their regional movement reports solely on data from Google Maps and Apple Maps respectively, Facebook Mobility Data Network pairs location data with census data and satellite imagery.
Apart from this, Facebook has put up a US-wide opt-in survey on user symptoms to compile a county-by-county map of the COVID-19 symptom prevalence.
The COVIDcast dashboard by Delphy Research Group is an even more remarkable example of an interactive COVID-19 tracker map. COVIDcast displays real-time information on cases and deaths as well as doctor visits, symptoms, and Google search trends in the US, detailing the data as detailed as subway areas.
With all the information taken from official sources, COVIDcast is an accurate solution for tracing and predicting the surges and falls in the disease spread.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, geospatial tech rose to unprecedented prominence, evolving from a niche solution to a technology applied at national and global levels.
Tried-and-true and budget-friendly, it became many governments’ first choice for tracing contacts of those infected with coronavirus, ensuring quarantine compliance, and getting real-time insights into the disease spread.
Some states even took a chance with adopting emerging GIS tech and, it seems, their efforts have already paid off.
Even though geospatial-powered coronavirus apps yield exceptional results, only time can tell if GIS-powered systems are truly valuable for stemming the virus and helping societies to recover from the pandemic.
But one thing is clear even today—if governments want to include any of such solutions into their public healthcare toolkit, it will require significant refinement of the existing data use policies and privacy protection mechanisms.