To break the chain, first we need to locate it

In a time of quarantines and lockdowns, one would think that nobody needs a map and location services anymore. After all, who needs a map to go from the bedroom to the kitchen?

But this idea could not be more wrong – maps and location-based data have become even more essential to help combat the pandemic, with the key word being Mobility. In order to successfully contain the virus spread, understanding and controlling mobility is key, and in this, maps and location services have emerged as a key tool in the pandemic fight.

Locating the chain

The first instance that comes to mind is the contact tracing app – this relies on Bluetooth handshakes between users to enable trace-back of who an infected person might have been in contact with. To be clear, this is proximity-based data – the vast majority of contact tracing apps have stated clearly they do not collect location data, due to privacy concerns. Countries such as the UK, Australia and Singapore have all launched their own versions of such ‘crowd-sourced’ virus prevention app aimed at identifying and then breaking the chain.

Recently, Google and Apple, which account for the vast majority of mobile phone operating systems, have also collaborated to launch a global standard contact tracing platform, which is a decentralised model with user privacy in mind (data is kept on the phone unless the user chooses to share it). This compares against a centralised model where anonymised data is uploaded to a central server, which proponents say give health authorities more control and data insights to help tackle the virus spread.

As it is, more and more countries including Germany, Canada and Ireland are set to adopt Google and Apple’s global standard, with the common, global platform being a big advantage when it comes to data sharing and monitoring international movements of people. What is clear here is the criticality of location-based services (LBS) in solving a problem of this scale, and that LBS solutions can be scaled globally with ease to address a global problem.

Visualising the outbreak

Properly visualising and thus understanding the problem is usually the first step to solving it, via quick control, pre-emptive measures, and efficient resource planning and allocation. This is especially critical for large-scale, dynamic crises – the current global pandemic being possibly the worst candidate.

ESRI, for example, have become one of the main platforms supporting global organisations in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. Partnering the World Health Organisation (WHO), ESRI’s ArcGIS system provides the base geographic information system (GIS) model for many research, healthcare, and governmental institutes to help model, understand, and predict the spread of the disease.

With GIS, clusters of outbreaks can be mapped and tracked through time, and against various other data points, e.g. demographics and local available healthcare resources. Vulnerable populations can be identified and given extra attention, and resources planned and allocated efficiently, with potentially vulnerable and at-risk areas reinforced.

In short, spatial and temporal visualisations on a GIS system enable a dynamic understanding and modelling of the outbreak, as infections spread over time and space. Timely, proper and accurately represented data is the first step to solving the problem.

More intrusive options – the nuclear button

In the containment of the virus, Asian governments such as China, Singapore and South Korea have been portrayed as employing more intrusive methods to contact trace – for example, using surveillance camera footage, phone tracking, and even credit card records.

What is perhaps undeniable is that these methods have achieved significant success, which means they may present a last-ditch option for other nations – one more (final) weapon in the arsenal.

The European Commission, for example, has harboured such thoughts – it has leaned on telcos to share aggregated and anonymised mobile phone location data ‘to analyse mobility patterns’ to model the spread of the virus and monitor the success of containment methods. Orange in France, for example, is sharing geo-location data with Inserm, a French research institute, to run predictive analytics and modelling in order to identify vulnerable regions and allocate healthcare resources more efficiently.

Great power, great responsibility

All in all, location-based services offer a very potent and effective tool to governments to combat this epidemic on a global scale. There is more potential if data privacy and security concerns can be properly addressed, or a suitable compromise between individual rights and public welfare can be made, given the exceptional weight of the situation.