How geospatial tech helps fight COVID-19 right now

16.06.2020
10 min.
title

Geospatial technology, or geographic information systems (GIS), has become an essential instrument in multiple areas today: agriculture and aviation, construction and commerce, climate research and law enforcement—the list could go on. The global market of geospatial solutions, according to the recent research by ResearchAndMarkets, is expected to grow dynamically in the next five years, reaching $549.1 billion by 2025. Due to its highly specialized nature, however, the technology has always remained inconspicuous—until recently.

In the light of the current epidemiological situation, geospatial tech has risen to a pivotal significance in regional, nationwide and global initiatives for combating the COVID-19 pandemic. At the moment, the technology is at the core of contact tracing, syndromic surveillance, virus hot spot prediction, and quarantine alert systems, with more similar projects in healthcare app development to be put in operation shortly.

Such a heavy involvement has not only rapidly expanded the technology’s application range but also accelerated the wide adoption of forefront geospatial solutions that were only nascent a few months back. On the one hand, the dire circumstances promise to popularize the technology and prompt further breakthroughs in the field. But on the other hand, will this geo tech remain relevant, applicable and, most importantly, ethically acceptable after the pandemic subdues?

Let’s look at the prominent GIS developments implemented in coronavirus-related apps so far and discuss their positive and negative implications for the future of geospatial technology and the society on the whole.

Geospatial tech underpins COVID-19 applications

As the COVID-19 outbreak grew into a pandemic, nations around the world began taking drastic actions to stem the virus. Along with declaring country-wide lockdowns and mobilizing their healthcare systems, some authorities urgently arranged for mobile app development that would support disease containment and control. Beyond that, several private tech companies and research institutions voluntarily came forward and released proprietary COVID-19 solutions for public use.

By and large, there are three main types of the geospatial software created in response to COVID-19: contact tracing applications, quarantine alert systems, and virus surveillance dashboards.

Geospatial tech in contact tracing apps

Contact tracing is a conventional public health practice used to track down close contacts of an infected individual and thus forestall further disease transmission. Before the pandemic, it was routinely performed in cases of common (tuberculosis, HIV, measles) and novel (SARS, Ebola, MERS) infections outbreaks in the format of an interview with the disease carrier.

In the context of COVID-19, when neither the vaccine discovery nor the herd immunity development can be expected anytime soon, contact tracing came to be the pillar of the global response to the virus. Still, the processes needed to be automated and streamlined to make a difference. The countries hit earliest and hardest by the disease, such as China, South Korea, and India, were among the first to launch contact tracing apps; they were soon followed by Australia and countries in the Middle East and Europe.

The first adopters of contact tracing systems chose to utilize GPS-based proximity detection. This type of mobile healthcare app continuously registers the owner’s location data and transmits it to a public health database for analysis and contact identification. When someone they crossed paths with for an extended time is tested COVID-19 positive, the owner gets a notification, specifying when and where the contact happened without disclosing personal details.

From the technological standpoint, using GPS for contact tracing proved a sound decision, as it a) is a low-cost proven solution used in multiple modern apps, b) determines location with moderate to high accuracy depending on conditions, c) required little time and effort to be adopted for the COVID-19 use case.

However, due to serious civil liberty concerns, numerous governments opted against GPS tracking. In the spring of 2020, two major GPS alternatives were developed: the Singapore-developed BlueTrace protocol that employs Bluetooth Low Energy and a centralized report processing, and the Exposure Notification system by Google and Apple that utilizes a combination of Bluetooth, cryptography, and a decentralized report processing. As of now, Bluetooth-powered contact tracing apps are mostly at the early implementation stage or are to be released soon.

Bluetooth-powered contact-tracing apps

Geospatial tech in quarantine alert systems

As soon as it was found that COVID-19 had been transmitted mainly through close contacts with infected individuals, countries around the world imposed measures that restrict movement of confirmed and potential carriers, commonly placing them in a mandatory 14-day quarantine. While some governments relied solely on their citizens’ sense of responsibility to stay isolated, others took the trust-but-verify approach and introduced manual or automated control mechanisms. The best known is the Chinese post-lockdown colored health code system, but there were others leveraging geospatial tech to keep track of quarantine breakers.

Taiwan, Hong Kong, and certain Indian states implemented geofencing alert systems to detect quarantine violators almost in real time. Their working principle is simple but efficient: authorities set a virtual boundary around the person’s place of quarantine, and as soon as their mobile phone or wearable device crosses the perimeter, an alert to an authorized agency is set off.

Some Indian systems, so far fully adopted in Kerala and Tamil Nadu states and being underway in other regions, monitor the device GPS signals to determine the carrier’s location. Another app launched in the state of Gujarat is equipped with both geofencing and GIS mapping technologies, allowing the government to not only detect a quarantine breach, but also to track the movement of both the self-isolated and the violators. The authorities claim the information gathered is confidential and strictly for the health management purposes, yet the geofencing system still raises some privacy concerns since it works only for the carriers using mobile services of privately-owned telecom companies.

The digital fence technology in Taiwan identifies a person's location based on proximity to the closest cell tower, which the authorities claim is less privacy-intruding. The technology has already garnered interest in other countries, including Indonesia, Italy, and Australia.

Hong Kong relies on a different privacy-preserving geofencing technology. Upon arriving in the city, each person is required to download the StayHomeSafe mobile app and wear an electronic bracelet. The app samples the communication signals in the person’s home such as Wi-Fi, cellular, and Bluetooth and creates a unique residence signature. When the app does not receive the signals, it alerts the government of the quarantine breach. According to the system’s creators, they opted against GPS for privacy reasons as well as because geolocation tracking has limitations in such a densely and vertically populated city as Hong Kong.

Geospatial tech in coronavirus maps

Among the most notable global-scale initiatives are coronavirus maps and dashboards that provide close-to-real-time insights into population mobility patterns and symptom display, allowing the accurate prediction of the virus spread and timely actions.

In one instance, Google, Facebook, and Apple developed proprietary mobility dashboards using anonymized location data they had been routinely collecting from their users. While Google and Apple base their regional movement reports solely on data from Google Maps and Apple Maps respectively, Facebook Mobility Data Network pairs location data with census data and satellite imagery. Apart from this, Facebook has put up a US-wide opt-in survey on user symptoms to compile a county-by-county map of the COVID-19 symptom prevalence.

COVID-19 Mobility Data Network

Additionally, several educational institutions voluntarily contributed to global efforts with the software of their design. The Biocomplexity Institute of the University of Virginia released one of the most sophisticated COVID-19 surveillance dashboards that integrates the ArcGIS Living Atlas system to present constantly updated information on new cases, recoveries, and deaths across the globe. But it’s not only big data visualization in real time that makes this dashboard powerful. The researchers chose to integrate a disease modeling mechanism into its GIS system to enable fine-grained epidemiological forecasting at the global and regional levels. At the moment, the team works on a medical resource demand dashboard aimed at predicting critical medical equipment shortages.

COVID-19 Surveillance Dashboard

The COVIDcast dashboard by Delphy Research Group is even a more remarkable example of an interactive COVID-19 tracker map. COVIDcast displays real-time information on cases and deaths as well as doctor visits, symptoms, and Google search trends in the US, detailing the data as detailed as subway areas. With all the information taken from official sources, COVIDcast is an accurate solution for tracing and predicting the surges and falls in the disease spread.

How the pandemic catalyzed geospatial innovation

In the majority of cases, coronavirus apps were supplemented with conventional and tried-and-tested geospatial technologies. However, in the state of a global health emergency, several niche geospatial solutions have been repurposed for fighting against the virus.

Geospatial analytics

As governments began emphasizing data-driven decision-makingt to efficiently address COVID-19 transmission and spread in their countries, geospatial analytics, a method fusing spatial, demographic and statistical data, proved indispensable.

A wealth of dashboards and maps available today supply authorities with the granular real-time dynamics of COVID-19 cases, deaths, recoveries, and hospitalization locally and globally. Pairing this information with relevant demographic data, such as population age, financial state, housing conditions, activity patterns, and self-reported symptoms, officials get a contextualized view of the region and can easily pinpoint the areas most vulnerable or prone to becoming the hot spot of the disease.

Leveraged by researchers at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, geospatial analysis aided the identification of Spanish areas most in need of protective measures against the COVID-19 outbreak.

Geospatial AI

Artificial intelligence became a strategic ally in humanity's fight with the coronavirus from the very beginning. Since January, multiple proprietary algorithms have been scanning health reports, news, air travel information, and social media, giving a relatively accurate prediction of the virus spread. Some systems also take into account geospatial data from public dashboards in their calculations, but for the time being there are a few solutions emphasizing GIS to make COVID-19 predictions.

One example is the state-of-the-art Seattle-based Spectra geospatial platform by BlackSky. The system applies AI to analyze imagery from satellites and commercial monitoring systems and identifies early signs of social and economic recovery in the region, taking into account the number of vehicles on the streets and airplanes at the airport, as well as other telltale signs of reviving activity that could be sourced from GIS data.

Other notable geo AI projects are under development by the Penn State University geography research group. Their solution based on predictive modeling will put together satellite imagery, infrared energy, radiofrequency emissions, and population density data with population movement patterns, contact rates, and transmission dynamics to accurately predict potential COVID-19 outbreak zones. Another system this team is building will evaluate Pennsylvania’s food and environmental security during and after the pandemic and predict food system risks.

Geospatial tech and drones

As high-resolution and up-to-date spatial imagery has become a priority in all the geospatial application fields, this domain has seen supercharged data-gathering processes with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones. Nimble, high-performing and budget-friendly, they have been increasingly applied for geospatial mapping in recent years. Just like drones changing the game for GIS, geospatial tech now accommodates the needs of authorities who employ UAVs in their fight against the virus.

Drone application methods vary from country to country. In a number of states, they help enforce the lockdown, patrolling city streets from above and alerting law enforcement of violations or reminding of social distancing rules. In Italy and Saudi Arabia, drones measure citizens’ body temperature, while the UK, Ghana, and Chile use them to deliver supplies, protective equipment, and tests to remote areas. Finally, health authorities in China, India, and Indonesia deployed UAVs to disinfect the most affected public areas.

None of these efforts would have been as effective if the authorities didn’t rely on GIS. Geospatial data not only helps to correctly identify heavily affected, inaccessible or vulnerable areas, but also helps create a highly-detailed map of residential estates and natural landscapes. The existing level of its sophistication allows the device to automatically navigate past obstacles and carry out its task with no delay or breakages.

The controversies

At the moment, authorities around the world are heavily banking on their newly-built software to help stem the COVID-19 outbreak. In countries like South Korea, New Zealand, and China, coronavirus apps have already lived up to their promise. Yet, from the very beginning of the pandemic, societies and organizations have been raising concerns about solutions accessing and recording user geolocation data, dubbing them an emerging threat to human rights.

For one thing, GPS location data, even though diligently anonymized, can be used to disclose sensitive details about the person’s identity, behavior or activities to the general public. This way, the South Korean movement tracking and recording system has even allowed internet users to expose a cheating couple.

Another concern voiced about coronavirus apps is their lack of transparency. Only a few countries released the source code of their contact tracing and geofencing solutions, without which it is impossible to know for sure whether location data is collected, used, stored, and destroyed the way the developers claim. Furthermore, some tracing apps require users to fill in their personal information, including home address and phone number, which, according to the official line, is used only to contact the infected individual.

If the potential of this software is abused, it is feared that the pandemic will leave some governments with hefty databases of personal records or even a mature technology for pervasive surveillance over their citizens. Well-aware of these implications, most European countries shunned away from GPS contact tracing, awaiting more privacy-preserving protocols to be developed. But as it turns out, the fault may be not in the geospatial tech itself.

To give an objective assessment of today's contact tracing technology, the MIT Technology Review launched the COVID Tracing Tracker project. The team reviewed 25 government-run coronavirus tracking apps from all over the globe, focusing on their policies for personal data use and location tracking technology. As a result, only a few solutions scored high, while serious privacy and transparency issues were uncovered in the majority of the apps. It’s noteworthy that some GPS-powered apps were found perfectly privacy-friendly, just as some of those employing the high-privacy Google/Apple protocol turned out to be invasive and insecure.

The MIT’s unbiased review casts reasonable doubt on the assumption that Bluetooth is a cure-all for privacy breaches and governmental overreach in contact tracing software. For now, it is becoming increasingly evident that the problem may be not in overly revealing geospatial data but in the applications that leverage it and the intentions of those who develop them.

Summing up

During the COVID-19 pandemic, geospatial tech rose to an unprecedented prominence, evolving from a niche solution to a technology applied at national and global levels. Tried-and-true and budget-friendly, it became many governments’ first choice for tracing contacts of those infected with the novel coronavirus, ensuring quarantine compliance, and getting real-time insights into the disease spread. Some states even took a chance with adopting emerging GIS tech and, as it seems, their efforts have already paid off.

Nevertheless, geospatial technology, GPS tracing in particular, was met with resistance from the public and organizations concerned with the potential human rights violation. This controversy prompted some countries to turn away from GIS-powered solutions and opt for contact tracing protocols of a special privacy-centric design.

Even though geospatial-powered coronavirus apps yield exceptional results, only time can tell if GIS-powered systems are truly valuable for stemming the virus and helping societies to recover from the pandemic. But one thing is clear even today—if governments want to include any of such solutions into their public healthcare toolkit, it will require significant refinement of the existing data use policies and privacy protection mechanisms.

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