Here’s an exercise for you. Open up Google Maps on your smartphone. Click on your account in the top, right corner, and look for a menu option labeled “Your timeline.” Google routinely backs up your smartphone’s location on its computer servers. This information can be a gold mine for public health workers interested in contact tracing.
Aaron Deacon is the Managing director of KC Digital Drive, an organization dedicated to make Kansas City a digital leader in the U.S. and improve the quality of life of everyone in and around Kansas City. Deacon points out, “contact tracing is old fashioned detective work. You have to rely on peoples’ memories, where they’ve been, and who they had contact with. Memories aren’t always accurate.”
But your smartphone can help. KC Digital Drive is working with other firms (SafePaths, TripleBlind) on a grassroots effort to bring a smarter approach to contact tracing. Called Comeback KC, the group is mapping COVID-19 testing resources on both sides of the Missouri and Kansas state line.
A smartphone app is also part of the mission. Safe Paths (available from the Apple App Store and Google Play Store) privately compares your location data with the location of known COVID-19 infections. The app alerts you if you may have been exposed to the virus.
Apple and Google made headlines with their contact tracing efforts, but Deacon says the two tech giants may have missed the mark. “Apple and Google got people talking when they opened their platforms for contact tracing. However, they don’t allow developers access to location information for privacy concerns. Their methods rely only on the Bluetooth signals your phone comes in contact with. But geographical location is critical to tracking down pockets of infection.”
As COVID-19 cases slowly decline, knowing where pockets of infection are is vital for bringing the pandemic to a quick end. “When there gets to be a smaller amount of infected people, that’s when contact tracing with play a big role in ending this pandemic,” says Deacon. The app will help isolate the remaining cases and will help to better direct limited infection-fighting resources.
“One big challenge we have is the pace of resource deployment. We’re coordinating with six different health authorities in the Kansas City area. Jackson County (Missouri) and Johnson County (Kansas) have Federal money to perform COVID-19 testing. Other surrounding counties only have limited state funding. Some counties have more resources than others.” Said Deacon.