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Mar 24, 2020 | Elevate Blog

Putting location technology to work in a public health emergency

Tags: Public Health

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I am writing this from my home as I shelter in place, something residents of the Bay Area were ordered to do one week ago. Many companies in the Silicon Valley and worldwide are answering the global calls-to-action to do their part in addressing this growing health pandemic. Prior to this order and in the time since, our engineers have been adapting our existing location-based capabilities to help track and manage the spread of COVID-19.

We often write about the usefulness of location technology for locating emergency callers, managing first responders in the field, and otherwise positively impacting public safety. At the beginning of 2020, we made a few predictions about how location technology would continue this trend. At the time, none of us could have imagined the public health emergency we are now facing. During a pandemic, public health authorities must focus on many tasks, with perhaps the most important one being to understand how viruses spread and do what is possible to contain or at least slow the spread of the virus. They do this, in part, by encouraging ‘social distancing’ and by limiting contacts between infected and non-infected persons. In order to be successful, it is crucial that public health authorities are also able to quickly and unobtrusively trace all contacts of infected persons. The World Health Organization states:

“closely watching [at risk] persons…from the last day of exposure will help that person to get care and treatment and will prevent the further transmission of [the virus] to others.”

The challenge facing public health authorities is how to overcome obstacles to successfully conduct contact tracing. With past pandemics, these challenges have included:

  • Locating contacts of an infected person, which can be hindered by lack of identification (we don’t know the names of everyone we come into contact with on a daily basis), geographic barriers (someone may have traveled outside a public health authority’s jurisdiction), and mobility and transportation issues (investigators cannot always replicate an infected person’s route if it involved sporadic modes of transportation)
  • Enrolling contact-persons based on their willingness and availability – traditional contact-tracing relies on voluntary disclosure of information
  • Managing contact-tracing personnel when such resources are limited – when there are multiple priorities requiring field personnel, and the danger of them getting infected, contact-tracing efforts will suffer
  • Maintaining the rigorous contact-tracing schedule, which can last weeks and sometimes months

These challenges are particularly problematic in a fast-moving pandemic, where contact-tracing information is vital to slow the spread of disease. Fortunately, a solution exists today using widely-available, tried and tested technology. The Polaris Wireless Public Health Solution utilizes historical and real-time anonymized mobile location data to enable public safety authorities to conduct contact-tracing more easily and effectively than with traditional methods. This system leverages machine learning to produce a sophisticated subscriber behavior model for individuals and the population they interact with. Automated tracing of infected persons and their movements, identification of potentially contaminated locations and at-risk persons, mapping hot-spots and the spread of infection are vital force-multiplier tools for the contact-tracing personal and public health agencies. The information is available in real-time, and is immediately actionable, helping public safety authorities to make informed decisions, and protect their citizens without causing panic. These decisions include management of border closings and containment zones, priority allocation medical equipment and professionals, and public service announcements focused on areas with increasing risk for the spread of infection.

Please heed advice and directives from your government and health departments – we all need to do our personal part in minimizing the spread of the virus. In the meantime, our business is still functioning and we are pleased that Polaris Wireless is in the position to apply our existing analytics platform to serve this unprecedented and concerning health crisis.

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