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Tracking Coronavirus: New Methods Using Online Communication

David Street
3 min read
Mar 26, 2020

The race is on to effectively track how and where coronavirus is spreading as well as how it affects those infected. It's easy to forget amid the pandemonium that this is the first global outbreak for which we have both an understanding of germ theory and a massive global communication system – the internet. Three data collection methods are taking advantage of that fact.

The first comes from The Economist, a London-based newspaper. Journalists used location tags from Instagram posts to see if young people traveled from a COVID-19 hotspot to somewhere else. The theory was that such travelers might not have serious symptoms and would be quiet carriers, possibly helping spread the virus. Their analysis found that the movements of these Instagrammers indeed tracked the movement of COVID-19 fairly well. Read the full article here.

The second is a new mobile application created by researchers in the UK. Over 750,000 people have downloaded it in the UK, and today, it will also be available in the US. Users submit basic personal and medical data and a daily report of COVID-19 symptoms, if any. The researchers insist on the purely scientific nature of the research and say that no data will be used for any other purposes. Their goal is to better understand how the virus affects people and not to track those who have it. Read more about the app on its website.

The last comes from Google. More exactly, it comes from Alphabet, Google's parent company. The internet giant has several projects concerning COVID-19. Verily, the life science research subsidiary of Alphabet, has set up a website to screen and test residents of a few California counties. Verily says they will expand the service to more places as soon as possible. Although it claims that the site is only focused on screening and testing, it's hard to imagine the Google sister company won't also use data collected for research purposes. Verily openly states its intention to "make health information useful." Read more about the project on its website.

Google itself has also helped collect data, as part of a study at Carnegie Mellon University, using the Google Opinion Rewards app. The app exchanges survey responses for credit in the Google Play store. The extra incentive for participation could change the results, though it's not clear how. It's also not clear if the data ever will be available publicly, so we may never know. Reuters reported two days ago on the survey.

Other methods, both new and old, are also being used to track and control the spread of the virus. Health officials go door to door to manually check those who may have been in contact with the virus. Some countries have adopted more invasive methods using AI, apps, and bracelets to help track, and even detain, those that are infected or who are thought to be infected.

The COVID-19 pandemic will teach us a lot about ourselves and the virus. It will also teach us about how we might use technology in the future to respond to similar crises.