Feds, Tech Industry Mull Use of Cell Phone Data for COVID-19 Hot Spot Analytics
Google and a host of other technology companies are in discussions with the federal government and health experts over the use of Americans’ cell phone tracking data to analyze where coronavirus hot spots are happening and to predict where the next ones will occur.
According to a story in the Washington Post today, analysis of the movements of smartphone users could be a key to understanding, and slowing, the COVID-19 pandemic, which has infected more than 180,000 people worldwide. While the Post story included Facebook as part of the project, company CEO Mark Zuckerberg today denied that Facebook is part of a cell phone-based tracking effort.
“In recent interviews, Facebook executives said the U.S. government is particularly interested in understanding patterns of people’s movements, which can be derived through data the company collects from users who allow it,” the Post reported. “The tech giant in the past has provided this information to researchers in the form of statistics, which in the case of coronavirus, could help officials predict the next hot spot or decide where to allocate overstretched health resources.”
While the use of personal tracking data could prove effective in understanding how the coronavirus is spread, the news article also noted it “could leave some Americans uncomfortable, depending on how it’s implemented, given the sensitivity when it comes to details about their daily whereabouts.” But the Post quoted an unnamed official with the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy who said the data would be used in aggregated, anonymized form. Other sources said that if the project moves forward, a “government database” on the movements of Americans will not be built.
Tech giant Microsoft, with its Bing internet search engine, is already embarked on a related project, having launched a mapping capability designed to track cases of COVID-19 that includes a near-time map locating confirmed cases and cases per country, state and county.
And Facebook has been working with health officials and non-profits around the world under a project called Disease Prevention Maps, according to the Post, to provide anonymized statistics about people’s movements based on cell phone data voluntarily given to the company by Facebook users.
In addition, Zuckerberg today said the company will install an information center at the top of user’s News Feeds suggesting "authoritative information" about coronavirus. Zuckerberg said that by tomorrow the center will roll out in Italy, France, Germany, Spain, the UK and the US, with all 2.5 billion Facebook 2.5 billion users also eventually getting access. The center will have updates from national health authorities and global agencies, and will include articles, videos and posts about social distancing and other preventive measure.
At this stage, the idea of a joint effort involving tech companies and the federal government appears to be in the exploratory stage. The Post reported that tech executives and investors “presented a range of ideas around disease mapping and telehealth to the White House during a private meeting Sunday.” The group was comprised of tech company managers, investors led by the New York firm Hangar and Silicon Valley venture capitalist Ron Conway, public health experts from Harvard University, and telehealth startups, including Ro.
“We are still in the process of collecting ideas, recommendations, and proposed actions from task-force members, which we intend to present to the White House in the coming days,” Josh Mendelsohn, the managing partner at Hangar, told the Post.
The effort comes (see related story) as five tech companies – Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Reddit and Twitter – announced a combined push to stem false information and fraudulent activity on the internet related to coronavirus.
Another private-public project was launched two days when the White House, technologists and health experts launched a portal that uses AI natural language processing techniques to analyze and identify new insights on nearly 30,000 coronavirus research papers.