2020-03-28 update: too late now. In hindsight, it was too late at the time of publication. There were already too many asymptomatic carriers. Now increase indoor humidity in public places.
Properly utilizing all the location data, collected about most of us most of the time, we can stop the COVID-19 pandemics within a few weeks.
Per CDC, the main route of the COVID-19 transmission is from a sick person to others within 6 feet from him or her (“he” will be used throughout the article for simplicity). The spread of COVID-19 will be stopped if:
- everybody checks whether he was within 6 feet from somebody sick or infected within the last 14 days
- those who were, self-quarantine and take a test
- those who are tested positive, remain in self-quarantine and start treatment.
Luckily or unluckily, there are multiple companies that have information about where we were at what time, for most of us. Using this data, the problem is reduced to detection of possible encounters (collisions in a non-Euclidean space) with COVID-19 infected or sick persons, while maintaining privacy and receiving consent.
Potential Data Providers
Two most prominent potential data providers are cellular networks operators, Google, and Facebook. I think that cellular network providers collect and store information about everybody with a cellphone turned on, and this information can be used to triangulate one’s movement with precision of few meters.
Google collects and stores all movements (location history) of most people. It collects this data from Android phones and Google applications on iPhones, laptops, and tablets. Further, Google has beacons on most websites and many apps, and records our locations when we visit or use them. Google operates DNS servers, and probably uses them for tracking as well. Google records our locations when we use Gmail and other Google and non-Google applications. Google combines information from most sources.
Facebook collects locations of its users at least when they use its app or website. Additionally, Facebook has social graph of its users, which provides information of who might have met whom at what time.
Apple collects location data on ts iPhones. Apple apps also send such data home.
Credit Card companies track locations of purchases in physical shops, and IP addresses (easily matched to physical locations) of online shoppers.
There are many other apps and companies collecting and storing our location and, consequently, movement data using our mobile phones, tablets, and laptops. Some of them are probably capable of interpolating or extrapolating data that was not recorded. Such invasion of privacy is bad but can be put to good use to stop the current pandemic.
The COVID-19 Tracking System
As usual, the system would consist of a backed with a database, a web or app interface for health care professionals (HCP Interface), and an interface for the public. The database shall store movements of COVID-19 infected persons. The US and most other countries will have their own systems and provide limited visibility to each other. In the US, the Tracking System should be operated by the federal government, personal information collected only with consent of the person, and stored in anonymized form for limited time. Cellular operators, Google, Facebook, Apple, and other data providers (“Data Providers”) shall not have read access to the tracking database.
The Data Providers shall implement an interface for the Tracking System backend to call, when an individual gave the consent. Upon the call, the data provider shall locate all the movements data they have on the individual, format it in accordance to an agreed specification, and to transfer to the Tracking System.
Each time a person is tested positive or gets ill with COVID-19, the lab, hospital, or CDC would ask him for consent to collect and store his movements data from the participating Data Providers over the previous 14 days. Practically everybody is interested to give consent, because it would help his friends and relatives who might have become infected by him directly or indirectly. The Tracking System backend shall enter the data into the database, stripping away individual’s name and other personally identifiable information. The health care professionals would further enter vitals, symptoms, and additional movements information provided by the patient.
The general public interface shall allow an individual to find out how much at risk he is. The person would be required to give a consent for collection, but not storage of his movements data. He shall be able to add additional movements data, as well as his vitals and symptoms. Then his movements are checked against movements of infected and ill persons. If he was in the same time and place with anybody ill or contagious, the system would recommend him to self-quarantine and/or get a test. His data shall not be stored by default, although he should be given such option – infected people and places will be added to the database continuously, and some individuals tested positive might be marked as non-contagious. The recommendation can change either way, even for the same data.
If enough manpower is thrown at the project, it can be completed in a couple of weeks.
COVID-19 Tracking Lite
A simpler system can be implemented in a couple of days. The database would include only non-personally identifiable information that CDC has, such as states and cities where COVID-19 was detected. The individuals would be able to enter their locations, vitals, symptoms (if any), have their locations checked against the areas where COVID-19 might be present, and to receive clear or not. Even when the full Tracking System is put in place, checking against Tracking Lite might be the first step for an individual.
- Even an implementation, using either Google or four largest cell phone network operators, might be enough.
- Location data for as short time range as possible should be requested. Based on the current knowledge, it is 15 days or less.
- There should be a separate option for both tested positively and untested individuals to consent for continuing data updates from the Data Providers for the next 15 days or until canceled by the individual. If the consent is given by an infected individual, his new data should be added periodically, but not continuously. For example, it might be added every morning at 4-6 am for the previous day. If a consent for continuing updates is given by a non-tested-positive person for self-checking, checks can be done continuously and status changes sent to him in real time.
- CDC would have to contact individuals who tested positively but was not entered into the system, ask their consent, and request and store their movements data
- Notice that COVID-19 currently affects only some areas of the US. Somebody who is far away from those areas don’t need to go through the whole procedure. When COVID-19 database is created, most people can clear themselves simply by checking at what distance the closest COVID-19 case was, without giving consents or entering other information
- Transmission through surfaces and stuff does occur occasionally, “but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads”. Checks for visits to infected places can be added to the system, too.
- Some people might provide consent only regarding some Data Providers or to exclude some data intervals, and such requests must be honored.
- Facebook mechanics also allows an alternative (or complementary) strategy: individuals who test positive on COVID-19 notify their Facebook Friends with whom they had contact while infected.
- 1,700 Google employees have volunteered to help with coronavirus-related efforts.
- Google and Facebook might have implemented a more limited version of the Tracking System on their own, if they wanted. They do use such information all the time for advertising, content suggestions, and who knows what else.
- When the virus cannot spread to new hosts quickly enough, pandemics end.
Originally published March 17, 9:33 am CT. Updates has been made throughout the day and on March 18.