One of the emerging storylines about slowing the spread of the coronavirus in Canada is the importance of increased testing and contact tracing.
The latter refers to the practice of figuring out where a person with the virus has been, in order to possibly identify and notify anyone who has been in close contact. In turn, they can take the necessary precautions to reduce the chance of spreading the virus to others.
This has typically been a labour-intensive process requiring an infected individual recounting, to the best of their recollection, where they have been and then other people trying to figure out who else could have been there and possibly infected.
But as the virus spread, epidemiological experts and governments realized that process could be done more efficiently via smartphone data. Countries further ahead on the curve have already introduced mobile-based tech to help trace contacts, and Toronto-based location data company EQ Works now says it has a solution for Canada.
EQ Works focuses almost exclusively on location and anonymous tracking of mobile devices, said CEO Geoffrey Rotstein. As the team started to hear more about the importance of contact tracing, they talked about how its basic requisites were similar to what EQ has been doing.
“We said, you know we’re probably in a very unique position because we’ve been dealing with these large datasets at huge scales,” he said. “Very quickly we got some momentum behind ‘Hey, we’ve got some of the core pieces right now for contact tracing already built. So how do we put this to best use.'”
From there EQ Works worked quickly, repurposing some of its tools and technology to build a unique tech-based tracing system that respects all of the Canadian privacy expectations and requirements.
“A lot of people have gone way over and above what their day-to-day roles were,” said Rotstein of the work his team has done in the last month. “A lot of people put in the extra effort, but people are excited about doing something now that can really make a difference. And I think the team as a whole has has really stepped up.”
An important feature of the EQ solution is the combination of GPS data with Bluetooth. Other versions of Bluetooth-based solutions have been already been in use around the world (and there are critics who question the effectiveness). While each version may vary based on developers and the privacy expectations and requirements of each government, the basic principles are similar.
It’s not really about tracking so much as phones “talking” to other phones among people who have opted to take part and downloaded the app. When phones get close enough for a long enough period of time, they exchange a unique and anonymous piece of code, via bluetooth, (EQ calls this a “handshake”) which is then logged by each device.
Your phone can register and remember all the phones you were close to for a period of time—likely two weeks.
If the owners of one of those phones tests positive, they can alert the public health authority and provide the anonymous list of all the other phones they’ve been in close contact with. The public health authority can then notify those owners so they can take additional precautions to reduce the chances of spreading the virus further.
“All that information stays on your device,” said Rotstein. “If you never test positive, you will never have that information go anywhere else. It’s just on your device and every two weeks or three weeks, it can be deleted.”
The EQ system is pretty much ready to go now, said Rotstein. “From a technical perspective, we’re there. The next step is really getting people at the government levels to sign up and say this is something that we need that we would like to get implemented.
“They’re doing their diligence. They want to make sure that everything is being done in in terms of making sure the privacy standards are all there and the security standards are all there.”
The other key factor that will determine effectiveness is people’s willingness to take part. “There’s got to be a certain critical mass and a certain scale for this to be effective,” said Rotstein, adding that could be anywhere from 50% to 70% of the population. “Obviously the more you can get the better it is for everybody.”