Donate data to health authorities to fight virus, says German epidemiologist

BERLIN — Theres a simple way people can help the fight against coronavirus, beyond washing their hands — donating their data.

Thats according to one of Germanys leading experts in digital epidemiology, an emerging field that analyses data to understand how diseases spread.

“Everyone has a cellphone that knows where you are, and some people even wear fitness trackers that, in principle, can detect a fever,” said Dirk Brockmann, a professor for complex systems who leads a project to model infectious diseases at the Robert Koch Institute, Germanys national disease control center.

“If there was infrastructure that allowed people to donate that data, we could analyze it to estimate when and where infected people come together with those who are susceptible, and more,” he added.

Big Tech platforms like Google and Facebook already scoop up huge amounts of data on their users, including detailed information about where they are, without directly paying for it.

But many people, especially in privacy-conscious countries like Germany, are uncomfortable with the idea of platforms handing over data directly to public health authorities without a green-light from users. One such suggestion last week led to public outrage in Germany.

They would also bristle at Chinese-style tech solutions, like requiring people to download an app that scores them based on their contagion risk and shares information with authorities.

In the meantime, countries like Germany are still tracking the spread via traditional means like interviews with infected patients to find out where they have been and who they have been seeing.

Thats why Brockmann suggests giving users in Europe a simple, easy option to hand over their data to authorities, without sacrificing the blocs far-reaching privacy standards.

With such green-lit data in hand, scientists in the EU could gain a similar amount of insight into how the disease is spreading as their counterparts in Asia — who in China, Taiwan and Singapore have slowed the spread thanks partly to such tracking.

“More knowledge means more power,” Brockmann added.

Tracking populations

An app would allow consumers to easily request their personal data from companies and donate it anonymously to a health authority or scientific institution.

“Im convinced that if we had a policy that told people that everyone can help regain control over the situation … most people would be willing to donate their data, if they could do that with just one click on their phone,” Brockmann said.

The global pandemic is a first test for the emerging field of digital epidemiology, which combines big data analysis with methods from medicine, biology, social science and statistics to understand and predict the course of infectious diseases.

One focus is on the formation of population “clusters.” Experiments with so-called “radio-frequency identification” chips or GPS trackers show that, generally speaking, populations seldom fully mix, but tend to be partitioned into clusters whose members interact all the time but rarely with other clusters.

Such “hidden” structures have an impact on how infectious diseases spread. That was illustrated in South Korea, where many confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, could be traced back to the close-knit community of a mysterious church.

Digital epidemiologists like Brockmann are also using machine-learning to find patterns in the way people move around — like how Google Maps caRead More – Source

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