Professor Sun Sun Lim, of the Singapore University of Technology and Design, writes on how Singaporean health authorities have been able to join forces with digital tech companies to slow the COVID-19 outbreak.
The wholesale digitalisation of everyday activities in recent years provides us a crucial tool in helping prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
This is particularly true in contact tracing – the work carried out to identify anyone who has had close contact with an infected patient.
Contact tracing is a long-standing and recommended public health approach for reducing infections in populations typically undertaken for diseases such as tuberculosis, measles, HIV and once emergent diseases such as SARS and H1N1.
Its objectives are multifold, including alerting contacts to potential infections, providing timely treatment as needed, preventing possible reinfection and more broadly, to learn about the epidemiology of a disease within any given population.
Contact tracing allows health authorities to provide a rapid response to those who might be newly infected and has been particularly important in Singapore’s ascertainment and slowing of the outbreak, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In terms of managing the spread of the disease and understanding who’s potentially been exposed, the shift towards digital services provides an unprecedented raft of data that can be used to analyse population movements and interactions, to fight the spread of infection.
For example, ride hailing taxi platforms like Uber and Grab have a very interesting and increasingly important role to play in terms of how we understand a person’s movements within a city.
Indeed in Singapore, ride hailing companies GoJek and Grab are working with authorities to help trace potential patients using their comprehensive travel history data for each customer.
With such information, we can ascertain exactly when and where they boarded and alighted.
This is game changing data that health authorities can leverage to gain an edge against a fast moving virus like COVID-19, helping people remember where they’ve been, what they have done, and who they’ve interacted with – all vital in a time critical environment.
Apps that reside on our smartphones are highly critical nodes in our digitalised world.
The varied functions to which we put our phones makes them a vast trove of rich and diverse information about our daily lives.
These include scheduling apps listing all our obligations, navigation apps recording where we go, health apps noting our levels of physical activity and sleep cycles, payment apps tracking our financial activities and social media apps capturing our thoughts, feelings and locations.
Of course, this also throws up concerns over surveillance and privacy, making people naturally squeamish or circumspect about how actively their movements are being tracked.
Robust measures must thus be put in place to ensure confidentiality and data security when plumbing big data for epidemiological purposes.
Big data is already being used in urban analytics, principally for transportation planning and public space optimisation.
Extrapolating this application of urban analytics to epidemiological research is thus logical.
Now in cities across the world where we see clusters of COVID-19 infections emerging in particular locations, big data allows the epidemiologist to identify particular conditions or contextual factors that may have promoted the spread of the disease.
As our bruising experience with COVID-19 clearly underlines, humans’ interactions with emerging technologies can prove a double edged sword.
Modern technology has opened up speedy and cost efficient transport and supply chain routes, which have also allowed the virus to jump rapidly across borders and oceans.
The rise of social media has allowed health authorities to quickly disseminate vital information to large disparate audiences, but also seen dangerous misinformation spread across the globe in minutes.
However, if we are able to harness emerging data technologies for the greater good with the necessary safeguards in place, it can offer us profound new insights and controls over unpredictable viral enemies now and into the future.
Sun Sun Lim is Professor of Communication and Technology and Head of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. She has researched the social impact of technology for over 20 years. Her latest book is Transcendent Parenting: Raising Children in the Digital Age (Oxford University Press, 2020).