Unlocking the value of mobility data

How mobility data has been used for tracking COVID19 during 2021

Covid-19 has halted the global economy. Since the world went into lockdown last year, many businesses have gone bankrupt, and thousands of people have lost their jobs. In many parts of the world, the lockdown is still underway. 

As the vaccines are made available to the public, and tracking mobility data is more accessible, global leaders are hopeful that things will go back to normal soon. 

Tackling the Covid Spread

Now that we look back at the Covid-19 outbreak in retrospect, we must appreciate the innovative ideas that helped medical workers track the spread of the virus, and thus contain it. 

But how did scientists, and medical professionals track the daily mobility data of already infected individuals? It turns out, researchers used digital proxies to keep track of the transmission

Scientists from Hong Kong developed a model that helped them accurately predict the number of transmissions in real-time. Prior to this, there was an average 9 days gap between contracting the virus and reporting it to medical officers. 

Hong Kong first reported its imported case on 23rd January 2020, and its first local case on 30th January 2020. 

Researchers used covid data from Octopus Card that every Hong Kong resident has. This card is used by all residents of Hong Kong for daily mobility and retail shopping. 

Last April, Professor Gabriel Leung, Dean of the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Medicine, expressed her opinion on how mobility data from the Octopus Card can be used to track the transmission of the virus.  

Digital Proxy Covid Data VS Case Data

The problem with case data is, there is a relatively high delay period between recognition of infection and report to medical professionals. Individuals can go weeks before the first symptoms of the Coronavirus start to appear. This period is referred to as the incubation period, and it can last up to 6 days. During this period, the virus stays completely dormant in the human body. 

Then comes the delay between diagnosis, and the arrival of the report. If the report says the person is covid positive, only then the individual will contact medical professionals. 

On the other hand, digital proxy data has no delay period. The data is readily available. 

In the case of Hong Kong, they used data from the Octopus card as their proxy. This card is used by 99% of Hong Kong’s entire population. 

There are four different types of Octopus Cards – Child, Student, Adult, and Elder. Researchers studied the usage of the Octopus Card among the four distinct age groups during the first two waves of the Coronavirus. This helped them form a solid understanding of the mobility pattern for the citizens. 

The underlying assumption for the study was- usage of the Octopus Card is directly proportional to population mixing. The Covid data from the Octopus Card was then turned into a parameter for the model, and integrated into the Covid Case data.

The data from the Octopus Card was really helpful to predict the infection spread rate during the third, and fourth waves of the Covid-19 outbreak. Data showed that reduction in mobility was less during the third and fourth waves than the first, and second ones. This makes sense, as with time people were tired of the NPIs (Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions) and had grown response fatigue. 

Digital Proxy for Tracking Mobility Data

Just like the Octopus Card in Hong Kong, digital platforms have been used to collect data about public mobility. This Covid data was later used to map out the virus spread and curb it. 

Different Telecom companies such as WeChat, and AliPay helped Chinese medical professionals track the spread of Covid. Similarly, Covid data from Apple, Google, and Facebook have been used in the UK and the USA.

Telefónica, a Spanish multinational company, launched its Movistar Car service back in 2019. It created an exclusive 4G Wi-Fi network inside the car. The service could automatically car the emergency number in case of an accident. Also, the service would schedule maintenance checks. 

There is one more feature of the Movistar Car Service- Tracking and Navigation. Using this service anyone can check the trip history and set up movement alerts. During the Covid lockdown, the Spanish law enforcement resorted to using this exact feature. 

To curb the spread of the virus, it was of utmost importance that people stayed home. But many people had their parents living in a separate home. They couldn’t just abandon them to face the lockdown on their own, could they? 

To justify their mobility needs, people would show their Movistar Car trip history. It would have detailed documentation of whether the individual went shopping, or pick up groceries or medicine, or to their parents. The verification was done using there, and their parent’s ID Card. 

This brings us to our next point. After months of lockdown, many nations around the world are now opening up their borders to the world and encouraging their people to go back to work. But there is still a possibility that another wave might breakout. Also, given the tendency of mutation of the initial covid virus, new strains, such as the Indian strains, have proved catastrophic. 

This only shows how important it is to keep on using digital proxy Covid data for tracking the spread of the new strains of the Covid virus. 

There is an open survey on Facebook that asks people about whether or not they have experienced any Corona Symptoms (shortness of breath, headache, nausea, fever, and dry cough). This Covid data is later used by professionals from Facebook, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Maryland.

The Verdict

This is not the first time Human Civilization is witnessing a worldwide pandemic. In fact, they are more frequent than we think they are. Ebola, Black Fungus, Measles, Nipah virus, Zika Virus, Yellow Fever, are only some of the pandemics in the last decade alone. The biggest advantage in fighting a pandemic in today’s world is digital proxy Covid data, and tracking mobility data. Researchers now have a better idea about the dynamics of virus spread, and they can also check the infected number in any given area in real-time.