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The smartphone app that could stop COVID-19 already exists. (23 Mar 2020)


World governments and the global healthcare community are rapidly working to stop the spread of COVID-19. I’ve been tracking the Coronavirus since January and providing daily updates since then. I created the COVID-19 Strategic Response Portal for this purpose.

A rather simple solution may already exist for stopping the spread of COVID-19. An app capable of running on the 3.5 billion smartphones in the world could help stop the pandemic. The following document describes this solution in detail along with the background information explaining the basis for this proposal.

Tracking Our Failures Can Help

The challenge with COVID-19 is that before showing symptoms, people can be infected and contagious. By the time we know someone is infected, they’ve likely spread the virus to many others. The US Health Weather Map by Kinsa is a good effort at tracking nation-wide fever clusters and hotspots. It’s a map of where we’ve failed to contain illnesses, including COVID-19, as represented by high temperatures. Even so, knowing that there is an outbreak in your community can motivate people to stay home until the collective temperatures are back to normal.

Early Detection of COVID-19

A proposal by Nicholas Johnson suggests we all preemptively take our temperatures before we feel symptoms. That proposal could significantly reduce the spread of the virus because it provides early notification of symptoms. People who don’t feel sick, might have a low fever and not even know it. This would alert them to self quarantine and prevent the spread of whatever they have.

I’ve been checking my temperature daily for many years. It’s quick, easy, inexpensive, and an extra bit of data that can alert us if our body is fighting off something. For example, on the morning of 27 Dec 2019, I noticed a slightly elevated temperature of 98.9 which is high for me. Normally it’s around 98 in the morning. So, I took precautions as if I was already sick, making sure not to infect others. By the afternoon of 28 Dec 2019, I had a temperature of 101 and by that evening it was 102.8. Despite having had a flu shot, I had Influenza A. The early detection helped me plan ahead and avoid contact with others. So, I can testify that Nicholas Johnson’s COVID-19 early detection proposal is something that actually works.

We Need a Time Machine

Once someone is identified as having COVID-19 symptoms or tests positive, we need to travel back in time and notify everyone they have had contact with.

We recently had a DJ in our area who tested positive for COVID-19. It was possible to review the DJ’s event schedule and notify all the businesses and venues where the DJ worked over the past two weeks. Those businesses and restaurants notified their customers.

Most people aren’t as organized as that DJ and they can’t accurately document every place they have been going back two weeks. Because no time machine exists, we’re left unable to notify the many people who may be at risk.

Tracking Location History

Whenever I leave home, I track where I’m going. I do this for tax purposes. As a tech consultant, I need to provide a year-end report of business travel separate from personal travel. I use a spreadsheet and also a GPS mapping system to track everywhere I go. I also use GPS tracking for walks and hikes. So, every movement has been recorded. If I were to develop symptoms or test positive for COVID-19, I could very accurately notify everyone I’ve been in contact with and people in all locations where I’ve been.

Your every move is also, most likely, being tracked without you knowing it. Android smartphones and Apple iPhones have location tracking built-in. You can go back and review everywhere you’ve been in great detail and even group your visits by location type, such as viewing all of the restaurants you’ve visited. This information would be of great help to notify places you’ve visited prior to having COVID-19 symptoms or being tested as positive.

An Automated COVID-19 Notification App

The above suggestions while helpful require considerable human effort and aren’t automated. We must regularly check the US Health Weather Map for our area, and take our temperature daily, or lookup our past locations on our smartphone, then if we become sick, notify any establishments where we’ve been over the past two weeks.

What we need instead is some automated app that, once we become sick, will immediately notify everyone we’ve been in contact with. The notification protocol can be specific to the illness we have. For example, if we test positive for Influenza A, then the app can notify everyone we’ve been close to over the past few days. If we test positive for COVID-19, the app can notify everyone who has been near us over the past two weeks.

The app could anonymously notify people: “You were in close contact with someone who was likely contagious with …” and provide the date, location, illness name, symptoms, and other helpful information. If that person becomes ill, they would indicate that in their app, and everyone they had been in close contact with would get notified.

To accomplish this, it would be necessary to aggregate everyone’s location information in a database. The database would know every person who was near us at the coffee shop five days ago. Assuming they have the notification app, they would be notified. That’s something the coffee shop owner would be unable to do effectively on their own.

There’s already an app that essentially performs this miracle work for us, completely anonymously. It’s called the TILE app.

The TILE App and Property Tracker

I started using the TILE app and property trackers back in 2015 shortly after their 2014 crowd-funded launch. It’s been a fun product to be involved with. Being one of the original users, I’ve been able to provided the company with feedback over the past 5 years that hopefully helps make their products better. One of the features I like best is the ability to get a count of how many TILE users are in our surrounding area (presently 826). That number gets larger when the University of Iowa is in session.

Here’s what a TILE tracker looks like. The actual size is about 1.5-inches square. You can learn more about them on Amazon. [View]

How TILE Works

The TILE tracker devices connect to your smartphone through bluetooth with the TILE app on iPhone and Android devices. The app can tell you where any lost items were last connected to your phone. That’s quite helpful. So, if you left your keys at a coffee shop, but subsequently visited 10 other locations that day, you need not backtrack all your steps. You can just go back to the coffee shop.

Not only does the app keep track of your own TILE trackers, it anonymously tracks other people’s TILE devices as well. This is where the magic begins. The TILE solution creates something like a global mesh network using people’s smartphones and bluetooth communications.

So, whenever someone forgets their briefcase, backpack, laptop bag, keys, or any other tracked device, every person in the vicinity with the TILE app will be anonymously tracking those items and reporting their location to a central database. Through the day, at coffee shops, airports, restaurants, offices, and more, people with the TILE app are helping report items that are nearby.

As soon as you use the app to report that you’ve lost something, the TILE network goes into action and immediately reports back to you where that device is (assuming other TILE users are nearby).

Developing a Wellness Notification App

A limitation of the TILE app is that it has limited adoption. A wellness notification feature would need to be as broadly adopted as the smartphone alert system, where every single phone has the technology built-in.

Drawing from the existing technologies described above, a cooperative effort between Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and other industry leaders could produce the app we need. Apple has already had many people sign a waiver and opt-in on a wide-scale heart health big data gathering project using the latest Apple Watch technology. So, we need a similar initiative across the entire mobile tech industry.

I’m sure that other people have simultaneously considered much of what I’ve shared above, but I wanted to write this up and describe the experiences that caused me to explore the possibility of a wellness notification app.

I plan to present this concept to industry leaders and promote it in hopes that it can be adopted broadly. Please feel free to contact me with any feedback or suggestions. I can include them above and can credit you for your contribution. Thanks.

Greg Johnson is the Director of Resources for Life. You can learn more about his work by visiting AboutGregJohnson.com

Further Reading

Below are some related news and developments that occurred after the above article was published.

Washington Post (24 Mar 2020 at 2:17 PM)

By Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson is a freelance writer and tech consultant in Iowa City. He is also the founder and Director of the ResourcesForLife.com website. Learn more at AboutGregJohnson.com

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