Thought leadership
    23 July 2020


    Mobile location data can ease lockdowns and fight COVID-19. Here's how

    Did you know that almost everyone has a smartphone that can help combat COVID-19? How does this work? Let's find out.

    It may be hard to believe, but we actually know very little about large pandemics and how they affect us. The last massive and global pandemic was the Spanish Flu of 1918, over a century ago. It didn't even start in Spain - that country's newspapers only reported it first while it ravaged many different countries. So even the name was wrong.

    The further you go back into history, the murkier it becomes. What was the disease behind the black plague that killed millions in the middle ages? We don't really know. How many people actually died during the plagues that attacked the Roman empire? We don't know that either. Was it an epidemic that ultimately caused the Mayan civilisation to disappear? Your guess is as good as ours.

    COVID-19 is the first time in history that we have several advantages. Everyone knows about viruses. Everyone understands the basics of disease. And almost everyone has a smartphone that can help combat COVID-19. How does this work? Let's dive in…

    My smartphone can help fight COVID-19?

    Yes, in more than one way. For example, if you run the Dreamlab app on your phone, it uses your device's idle time to help research cures for diseases such as cancer and COVID-19. But even if you do nothing, your phone is a valuable portal of information around how people move around during the pandemic.

    Wait, my phone gives away information?

    Yes, your phone transmits information such as location. It does this to communicate with the mobile towers that provide signals to you. The tower needs to know where the device is, otherwise your phone won't be able to make calls or browse the internet.

    But isn't that private information?

    It is, which is why responsible operators anonymise the data. It doesn't track your name or personal details, other than knowing that your phone number belongs to you. The data is also kept secure to comply with laws such as POPIA (Protection of Private Information Act), where companies can face hefty fines and even jail time if they mishandle your private information. But the movement information from your phone is anonymous, and it's this data that can be used to great effect for planning lockdowns.

    Planning lockdowns? How?

    Lockdowns are pretty new. In previous pandemics, especially those that happened before 100 years ago, people generally didn't understand about germs or the role of hygiene to stop them. There were some educated guesses, but nobody really knew to cough transmitted viruses or even what it meant to be contagious. So lockdowns and social distancing made much less sense than they do today. That means we still have a lot to learn, and data from mobile phones can tell us how people behave during lockdowns. These can help inform choices on how to ease lockdowns and better plan them in the future.

    What kind of information can these provide?

    You can see for yourself: Google has released data from phones using its services to see how we behave. For example, in South Africa, parks are 25% less busy than they were last year, and activity at homes are up by 20%. Such data also shows how we behave early in lockdowns as compared to later on. In this study of the Google data, it's obvious that people in some countries started ignoring lockdown rules the longer lockdowns went on. This is vital information for planning lockdowns and their easing.

    Is this a new idea?

    No, we've been using such data for other things already. Uber collects anonymous data to help better plan city layouts and traffic flow. Carto uses anonymous mobile data to help areas plan for tourism. And the same tracking systems used now to combat the spread of COVID-19 were previously used by Vodafone Analytics to combat malaria. An academic at UCT has used public COVID data to create this free dashboard to track the disease locally. That being said, there is a new factor in all of this: artificial intelligence. Using AI, researchers can comb through a lot of data and find those important patterns. AI is also how disease-fighting apps such as Dreamlab do their thing.

    Is my identity in danger?

    Your identity and personal information are not in danger. Companies such as Vodacom have to act responsibly to stay within the law. They can't sell or use the information for whatever they feel like. Though there are places that link you with your phone number, such as the RICA database, these are highly protected and can't be used without the permission of a court. That's bad news for criminals, but not the rest of us.

    So, is my phone helping fight COVID-19?

    Yes, it is. Simply by understanding how we move around or how the disease spreads, we not only get better at fighting the coronavirus. We're also preparing for any future pandemics. And such information is used to plan for other things as well, such as safer areas and less traffic. Your phone is doing more than fight the pandemic. It's helping make the world a better place for everyone!

    Leveraging technology can help you achieve more

    In adapting to this new normal, Vodacom Business has committed to accelerating digital adoption in support of companies’ business unusual. Despite predictions, no-one knows for sure what the new normal will be like, but we do know that technology can help us recover and evolve, providing better employment options that are able to survive disruption, and significantly improve on infrastructure and service delivery. It is clear that there has never been a better time to be a technology company as businesses begin to take the need for technology more seriously than ever before.

    Contact Vodacom Business today to find out how they can help your business.