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Taiwan used cellphone tracking, big data to contain spread of COVID-19 — should Canada do the same?

Taiwan using digital data to track the spread of COVID-19
Taiwan has reported at least 45 COVID-19 cases, a relatively low number considering the country's proximity to the Chinese epicentre of the outbreak. Heather Yourex-West reports on how Taiwan was able to defy the odds by using data.

Given its proximity to China, the COVID-19 outbreak could have hit Taiwan hard.

More than 400,000 of its citizens work in mainland China. Yet, weeks into the epidemic, Taiwan has fewer than 50 cases.

A recent article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) suggests the country’s use of big data analytics and cellphone tracking helped officials contain the virus’ spread.

“Early on there were models that predicted that Taiwan was going to be maybe the second or third country (with the highest number of cases) but Taiwan is way down the list,” said the paper’s author, Dr. Jason Wang, a pediatrics professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

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In the early days of the outbreak, “Taiwan leveraged its national health insurance database and integrated it with its immigration and customs database to begin the creation of big data for analytics,” the JAMA publication explains.

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If a person went to a clinic or doctor’s office, that data would generate alerts based on the patient’s symptoms and travel history. At the borders, those considered low risk were sent a pass via text message allowing them entry. Anyone considered high risk was put into quarantine at home and tracked through their mobile phone to ensure that they remained at home during the incubation period.

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Dr. Wang hopes other countries will take note of Taiwan’s success.

“I think this is an opportunity to start very seriously thinking about how (data analytics) can enhance public health practice,”  he said.

“Big companies like Google and Facebook are already tracking (us). Google knows where we are going next. Can we put that into good use for a while to contain the virus? We really need to think about guidelines to use this technology in a public health crisis.”

Canadians wait for next steps on Grand Princess cruise after 21 people test positive for COVID-19
Canadians wait for next steps on Grand Princess cruise after 21 people test positive for COVID-19

China and South Korea have used big data and cellphone location tracking to control the spread of COVID-19 as well but the practice raises serious personal privacy concerns.

“Geo-location data is considered extremely sensitive because it can identify you,” said Rozita Dara, a computer science professor at the University of Guelph whose research specializes in using artificial intelligence to track the spread of infectious disease.

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“It’s not easy to get access to it, for a (Canadian) government, without a warrant they cannot get access to it, telecommunication companies cannot sell it. In China, they don’t have those restrictions so it’s easier for them to use that data to make decisions.”

According to the CEO of BlueDot, a Toronto-based company that uses AI and advanced data analytics to track infectious diseases around the world, it is possible to both leverage data collected from mobile phones while protecting the privacy of individuals.

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“We are working with anonymized data on almost 400 million mobile devices and the location of these devices around the world,” said Dr. Kamran Kahn. “We’re not looking at individuals but in general, looking at populations to see how effective public health interventions have been.”

As an example, Kahn says the data can be used to see if people are self-isolating as directed.

“If a population is leaving, let’s say, a place in Iran where there is lots of intense transmission and coming into another part of the world, we can see if they are following advice to stay home for the next 14 days. Is (public health messaging) working or do health officials need to be more involved to ensure those quarantines are taking place.”