Using Mobile Phone Data to Limit the Spread of COVID-19

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By now it has been well reported in the United States and Europe that mobile phone data could be used to carry out so-called contact tracing in relation to COVID-19. People with mobile phones can receive information about those who might have been infected and who are near them. Mobile data could be used so that if someone does get infected that information is shared and areas you have been would be known, helping alert people who may have been near an infected person. Overall, mobile phone data could be used to limit the spread of the virus while medical experts can also use it to project next steps in fighting a pandemic. While this technology was effectively used in South Korea and China to limit the spread of COVID-19, there is reluctance in Western states.

Using Contact Tracing to Limit the Spread of Disease

Contact tracing was seen as a way to use mobile phone data to help beat pandemic spread. During the Ebola outbreak of 2014-2016, mobile phone data shared with authorities were utilized to help map the spread of Ebola. The lessons learned from earlier outbreaks and smaller-scale studies helped east Asian countries to roll out the use of contact tracing using mobile phone data to a national level. Furthermore, they were quickly utilized along with lockdown measures. In fact, authorities in some countries used it to ensure people were also social distancing or staying at home as ordered.[1] Many of these actions were based on medical research showing measures that used mobile phone data could be highly effective in diminishing the growth and spread of pandemics.

Benefits of Using Mobile Phone Data for Contact Tracing

The main benefit is governments can use information on mobility to suppress the spread of an epidemic as well as use the data to begin to lift restrictive measures as it allows monitoring of potential people and places that might begin to have more virus cases as measures are relaxed. Mobile data could be a way to balance economic needs and interest in reopening businesses while maintaining a monitoring system in place to determine if the virus is being contained.

An example of the mobility of two mobile phone users.  Source: Oliver et al., 2020.
An example of the mobility of two mobile phone users. Source: Oliver et al., 2020.

Barriers to Using Mobile Phone Data for Contact Tracing

There is, however, greater reluctance to use such data in Europe and North America, which may explain why Europe and North America have not been able to limit COVID-19 cases as effectively as some east Asian states. For one, data protection rights in Europe are far more stringent than most countries, making it difficult for phone companies to share such data. Only in April did the European Commission release guidelines on how mobile phone data can be shared by phone companies, where such data could be used for contact tracing without violating privacy laws.[2]

In the United States, mobile phone data are seen as proprietary knowledge, useful for the phone companies and their business efforts. However, perhaps the greatest limit to contact tracing and other applications of mobile phone data, including in suppressing the virus spread and learning for future pandemics, is government institutions simply lack understanding and multi-disciplinary teams to know how to use location data from devices.[3] Frontline workers and government institutions often do not understand how mobile data can be combined with our knowledge of how viruses spread and other information. Mobile phone data can also be used as an aggregate measure of the effectiveness for stay-at-home orders without having to know individual  phone data use, but there is a lack of knowledge on the insights that could be gained. Another major problem is research is still mainly published in journals not widely read or understood by the public, limiting knowledge on how such data could benefit society. 

To effectively change this, and to best use data that are already present, future pandemics will have to be better coordinated using mobile data. A recent Science editorial has put forth several key steps that need to be taken.[4] This can be accomplished by forming teams within governments that can work with private companies and inter-disciplinary teams composed of social, computational, behavioral, and medical scientists. This includes having big technology companies, such as Google and Facebook, have staff ready who can quickly join government-led teams to coordinate how data can be used to combat a pandemic. Data protection issues should be addressed from the onset by having relevant authorities as part of these teams, where their roles would be to ensure proper use of data. Data should also be released to international partners and shared to scientists around the world so that countries learn from each other and the spread of a pandemic can be addressed across national boundaries. Finally, cooperation has to be maintained at all stages of the pandemic, from the early stages to the potential second and third waves. Teams should be maintained so long as they are needed and should be able to rapidly reform if there is an unexpected spike after the pandemic has been initially limited or suppressed. 

While COVID-19 has undoubtedly been devastating for many countries and communities, the reality is we now have far more tools to combat pandemics. However, social will and better ways of collaborating between government, private, and other institutions need to be better developed if we are to better use the tools already around us. 


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References

[1]      For more on recent usage of mobile phone data to help fight pandemic spread of disease, see: https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/early/2020/04/27/sciadv.abc0764.

[2]      For more on European efforts to utilize mobile phone data without violating strict privacy laws: https://techcrunch.com/2020/04/22/eu-privacy-body-urges-anonymization-of-location-data-for-covid-19-tracking/

[3]      For more on how mobile data are being used and teams required, see:  https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/imaginea-launches-a-digital-framework-to-battle-covid-19-at-the-workplace-301054782.html.

[4]    The Science article editorial can be found here:  https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/early/2020/04/27/sciadv.abc0764.

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