The Social (Distancing) Network: Can Proptech Help Coronavirus Tracing?

Can the technology that’s made phones such a vital resource to the proptech industry actually aid in the fight against the spread of a virus? The answer isn’t so simple. 

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As the country shut down in March amid the first signs of the COVID-19 pandemic reaching the United States, digital maps started to flicker. The maps mirrored the level of inactivity throughout the country, laying bare the stark reality of the coronavirus’ devastating effect on the U.S. economy.

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All the data points came from cell phone apps—the kind that usually help advertisers and the real estate industry understand consumer foot traffic. Only now, the tech is being used as part of the private sectors’ push to help governments and businesses inform their response to the pandemic. Companies that usually cater to mobile advertising are now trying to help health authorities and governments understand how well people adhere to social distancing guidelines. In some more sophisticated scenarios, they’re trying to track the movements of people who’ve tested positive for the virus.

But can the technology that’s made phones such a vital resource to the proptech industry actually aid in the fight against the spread of a virus? The answer isn’t so simple.

“The more awareness that we can create through our visitation and other aggregated views of data to enable health care workers and the population at large—I think it’s a step in the right direction,” says Jeff White, CEO of Gravy Analytics, a purveyor of location data analytics to retailers and real estate companies.

White is talking primarily about his company’s COVID-19 data dashboard, which shows an aggregated view of foot traffic at various national retailers throughout the country. The data uses location signals from 150 million opt-in mobile users, which White admits doesn’t fully capture the true scale of human activity throughout the country. While he notes that it isn’t a contact tracing endeavor, he argues that Gravy’s map and others like it may serve as instructive for broader efforts to track the virus’ spread. GA has no current partnerships with government health agencies, according to a spokesperson.

“Our aggregated visitation view should be able to give healthcare workers a better understanding of how…to apply resources and contact tracers if they are on the ground,” he said.

Governments throughout the world are relying on similar technology to stanch the spread of COVID-19. Utah partnered with a social media start-up to launch the beta version of an app called Healthy Together in early April. It uses a multi-pronged approach to track Utahns and connect them with healthcare resources if they wind up testing positive or feeling ill. In Australia, the government rolled out COVIDSAFE, another app with a similar scope that’s been downloaded by 3 million people.

The paradigm can extend well beyond aggregating levels of foot traffic and human activity. Apps that use bluetooth signals, unlike the Gravy Analytics app, temporarily detect and store a user’s location data. This can be used to build a notification system to alert people who may have come into contact with someone exposed to the virus.

“The general idea is if you know all the places a given phone has been and do that for a nationally-scaled set of phones, you can start to figure out who overlapped with whom,” Dennis Crowley, co-founder and chairman of location analytics stalwart Foursquare, writes in an email. “If someone tests positive, you can then notify all the people who overlapped with that person.”

Per White’s thinking, the system can encompass a broad geographic area, citing certain physical hubs that typically foster a lot of foot traffic. If users have eaten at a restaurant within close proximity to someone who had tested positive,“there would be some form of advisory,” such as a push notification, he says.

“We know these visitations from an anonymous view. If [someone] was in and around a zip code level, we can use that as a ready-made model to say, ‘Hey, you could have been in an area that had an outbreak,’” he said.

While this technology, ubiquitous in the advertising world, could theoretically be leveraged to expand public health efforts, it comes with a host of drawbacks that give privacy advocates and epidemiologists pause.

For one, not everyone owns a cell phone. In a rebuke of Google and Apple’s recent efforts to build widespread contact tracing tools, the ACLU warned that these “methods are likely to exclude many vulnerable members of society who lack access to technology and are already being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.”

The potential for contact tracing efforts to leave out certain demographics remains a real concern. Ultra Orthodox Jews in Israel, for example, didn’t receive government notifications about the virus’ spread because their phones don’t allow for internet connections. Additionally, scores of phone-less migrant workers in Singapore went undetected during the country’s initial efforts with its own tracing app in March. A month later, however, a spike in infections in worker dormitories pushed the country’s confirmed caseload up by more than 8,000, according to the Associated Press.

The potential inaccuracy of data sets is compounded by the issue of user adoption and other privacy problems. “Adoption is the largest problem,” Crowley says. “Either getting everyone to use one app or getting all the apps to share data into one community pool,” will characterize much of the challenge, he said.

Plus, if a user’s personal information is hypothetically stored on a private company or government server, the public would probably be less inclined to participate. “I think there’s a lot of friction points,” says White.

“In order for them to be remotely effective, they need a 60 percent adoption rate, which would be unheard of,” he said. And for any bluetooth app to work, a large swath of the population would have to download and use it. Even when users do comply with a state-oriented bluetooth app, results could very easily be skewed.

“If I am in the wide open, my Bluetooth and your Bluetooth might ping each other even if you’re much more than six feet away,” Dr. Farzad Mostashari, the former national coordinator for health information technology at the Department of Health and Human Services, told The Verge.

“You could be through the wall from me in an apartment, and it could ping that we’re having a proximity event. You could be on a different floor of the building and it could ping. You could be biking by me in the open air and it could ping,” he said.

Firms in the proptech space are quick to note that they aren’t building contact tracing tools, but merely aggregating whether or not social distancing guidelines are being followed. One of those companies is Unacast, which typically serves the proptech space with location intelligence tools, and has also built various dashboards based on consumer foot traffic and mobility. The company’s tools have garnered a lot of media attention, thanks to its Social Distancing Scoreboard, which assigns a letter grade to states based on the level of mobility detected from phones throughout the state.

“On an aggregated level, we can tell if people are staying [at home], if they’re traveling more throughout the day, or if they’re limiting their visits to non-essential places,” Unacast CEO Thomas Walle tells Commercial Observer. The Kansas City Department of Health has used Unacast’s tools, but not always to great effect. The grading has been somewhat prone to fluctuation, largely because the technology isn’t capable of determining the proximity of human contact. As Fast Company reported in April, countries with sparse populations haven’t always been assessed accurately, which forced Unacast to update its methods to include the likelihood of an encounter in a given area.

For Walle, it’s more about helping businesses understand whether people are ready to venture back out into the open as restrictions are lifted in some areas. He says the “social distancing scoreboard allows us to understand how comfortable people are being out in public places.”

Firms throughout the industry are realistic about how they can help the world fight back against the coronavirus. “Until there’s a vaccine for COVID-19, we’re going to have to live in some sort of world where we have contact tracing and some testing at pretty significant levels for us to get back to any semblance of normalcy,” says White, of Gravy Analytics.

It’ll likely be the tech giants who are able to implement a more effective program at scale. Both Apple and Google demonstrated to various governments earlier this month how their programs might work, and are eyeing a rollout later this month. Having companies already so intertwined in the daily lives of millions spearhead the charge might be the only means of pushing mass adoption, says Crowley of Foursquare. “These companies may be able to ‘auto push’ an approved app to your phone [with] an OS upgrade,” he says.

So far, both Apple and Google have urged that their tracking apps prioritize privacy.