James Turell's Twilight Epiphany at Rice University

COVID detection and contact tracing via smartphones

I’m currently fascinated in how people can contribute geographic and symptomatic data (wittingly or unwittingly) to aid science’s and government’s understanding of the spread and depth of the coronavirus outbreak. Someone somewhere in the echelons of government and/or Big Tech is going to have to convince Americans to start using the best of these so we have some good national data to inform public health decision-making going forward. In the meantime I’m collecting links and will add them to this post as they become available.


These are projects collecting (anonymous to what degree?) geographic information, either by GPS or just zip code

HealthMap – Up and running since 2009, this is built by a global data consortium that collects infection data from a very wide variety of sources. John Brownstein at Harvard is the project lead. Geo-tagged results are displayed on the HealthMap website and on a mobile phone app.

Kinsa’s US Health Weather Map – Sponsored by a digital thermometer company, these data maps have been up and running since March 2020, capturing fever data across the US. A collaborative effort between the company and Oregon State University. Anonymous data is collected using Kinsa’s free smartphone app. The app does not require you purchase one of their thermometers to submit symptom or temperature data. If you opt-in your “anonymous” (there is no actual explanation from Kinsa on how they protect your identity), geo-tagged temperature readings are collected by Kinsa immediately and the map is updated in real time.

COVIDNearYou – Also from Brownstein’s group, a daily people-powered survey that tracks the geographic spread of the outbreak, with a simple daily question of how you are feeling. Users can enroll their mobile phone to receive reminders to take the survey each day. Data collection and display are done on their website.

Stanford Medicine’s National Daily Health Survey – more daily data collection, available on the Stanford Medicine website. Data is collected in a chat window, and users are asked to give basic demographic information, whether they have been in contact with confirmed infected persons, and whether they are experiencing any of the COVID-19 symptoms:

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Difficulty Breathing
  • Sore Throat
  • Head Ache
  • Muscle Aches
  • Loss of Taste
  • Loss of Smell

Users can register by email to receive daily reminders to take the survey.

Google’s COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports – Google is attempting to anonymize all the geographic data they collect to produce country-, state- and county-wide PDF mobility reports that chart how much the interventions to the virus has slowed down individuals’ mobility over time.

MIT has launched Private Kit, smartphone apps that store geo-tagged information users’ phones and lets users share them with researchers or not.

For-profit private GPS data harvesters X-Mode, LOTaDATA, Unacast, and others are also tracking this kind of data over time. These data points are being harvested by the CDC and fed out to researchers as part of an initiative called the COVID-19 Mobility Data Network. Of course the CDC doesn’t list the private companies supplying all this data, only the research institutions who will be analyzing it and giving reports back to governments. I bet the transparency of this kind of setup would be very different in Singapore or the EU.

Update: Facebook has developed sub-city grid maps of mobility, but only researchers get to see them, according to Bloomberg News.

Contact Tracing

These are projects that use privacy protecting Bluetooth proximity data to protect and alert users.

TraceTogether – Singapore government’s GPS-free proximity-aware smartphone app, released on March 20, 2020.

COVID Watch – From Stanford researchers, proximity tracing and other applications, currently in alpha, with expected rollout before the end of April. Details on their website.

DECODEproject – Privacy-protecting proximity tracing tools, described in a post on Medium.

Updates (April 12):

More Bluetooth tracing apps are now launching, as reported by Stacey Higginbotham.

The San Francisco Department of Public Health has commissioned app developer Dimagi to customize its CommCare platform into an app for COVID reporting, tracing and notifications.

Google and Apple have teamed up to produce specifications (and later develop these int iOS and Android toolkits) for proximity testing. They discarded the ETFL’s DP-3T suggestions and developed their own Bluetooth protocols. The DP-3T group responds.

The Sunday Times (UK) has reported today that the digital group within the NHS has been rapidly developing a mobile contact tracing app in collaboration with Google and Apple. The app is expected to be released shortly as a prerequisite for re-opening society after the current COVID wave has peaked.

And a British privacy and security group from Cambridge University has published the most cogent reasons why we should not rely on these apps, that can never replace person-to-person tracing systems and paper immunity slips issued by doctors.

A GitHub user is attempting to crowdsource a summary of all the activity around smartphone-enable contact tracing.

A scientist from USC has organized a more detailed document listing over 50 contact tracing projects.

Today, Frederic Filloux reports on why he thinks “radical” smartphone apps are going to hit the wall in western countries:

The chances of seeing such an efficient — while closely controlled — apparatus being developed collide with a critical factor unfortunately not limited to France, which is the mistrust of political leadership.

And for the last word, George Saunders has an Atwoodian vision of where tracing, labeling and quarantining will lead America after the “third election” (of Donald Trump Jr).

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