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The ever-widening spread of the corona virus is dominating the news. It seems likely that a pandemic is inevitable. The world is in crisis. Yet history has taught us that it is precisely at these moments that humankind comes up with creative solutions, innovations and new insights. This week Innovation Origins takes stock of what innovations in the technical and scientific fields lie in front of us which directly stem from the Corona crisis.

China is throwing a whole lot of technology into the fray. For instance, earlier this week we noticed that drones are being used for all kinds of tasks. But even robots and an automated caterer for hospital staff. Anything to prevent new infections.

In Hangzhou, the capital of the eastern province of Zhejiang where almost 10.5 million people live, the lockdown has been over for several weeks already. Thanks to a digital checkpoint system, residents can move around the city relatively freely once more. Via an app from data giants such as Tencent, the parent company of WeChat or Alipay, residents can apply for a QR-health code. To do this, they have to fill in their name, telephone number, identity number and a questionnaire. Questions about whether they have been in an infected area and if they are experiencing any symptoms. They are given a color code based on this information. Whereby red means that someone has to be quarantined at home for 14 days, orange means 7 days and green means that the person is allowed to move freely through the city.

Wherever you go you have to have this code scanned, anywhere from parks to subways and supermarkets. In addition to these check-ins, the app also stores users’ location details. Has a user been in an infected area? Then the code turns red and this person needs to be quarantined at home. Alipay is working together with the Chinese government on this system; the system has already been implemented in more than 200 cities. Though exactly how it works is not something the company wants to say too much about. (The New York Times has investigated this).

Digital checkpoints in Europe?

Peter de Kock is Professor of Practice in data science at JADS (the Jheronimus Academy of Data Science in Den Bosch, The Netherlands) and a columnist for IO. He is keeping a close eye on events. “Such a QR-code system is incredibly interesting. Quite apart from what we might think of it, because it is, of course, diametrically opposed to how we perceive privacy. This is a very effective way of using personal data to prevent the spread of this virus.”

Does he believe it is possible that a system like this will be introduced somewhere in Europe? “Location data and travel movements are extremely personal. By definition, these can be traced back to an individual. A lot has to happen before we, as a democratic society, set our fundamental rights aside. It depends on the level of necessity or urgency … When will these rights overruled by a major virus outbreak? These are difficult discussions. In China, that’s a different story because a lot is already controlled centrally over there.”

In The Netherlands, contact information could be provided a lot quicker with the use of location data. A spokesperson for the GGD (the Public Health Service) says that they use a questionnaire to map out where someone has been and who the person has been in contact with. De Kock: “Old-fashioned hands-on work really. That’s not bad if you have to check out 24 cases and their contacts. But it takes way more hours if you have to map out 2400 cases.”

Much is possible with location data

“The well-known data giants like Apple, Google and the rest have a lot of relevant data that could prove useful. For example, with the keywords people use, Google is much more capable of predicting when a flu epidemic will arrive than the RIVM is (theNational Institute for Public Health and the Environment, ed). In theory, the RIVM could make a more precise picture with the help of location data. Suppose I had celebrated Carnival in Tilburg, then it would be possible to see exactly where I had been and via which route I traveled back home. With location data, you can see exactly which other phones crossed my route.”

“It’s interesting to see how Google is responding to this. The RIVM, healthcare or government agencies cannot readily access this data. Yet as soon as public interest becomes high enough, that could well change. But even then you have to deal with laws and regulations, so it’s not that simple.”

The potential that Google data has was demonstrated by the solved murder case of Tjeerd van Seggeren: “In that case, the data from Google led to the wife, who insisted she had nothing to do with it. Using all kinds of data from the phones involved, a reconstruction was made and that led police back to the wife. Even the victim’s gyroscope data was read and apparently he had sex with his wife shortly before his death. That says how much you can find out about someone with that kind of data.”

Secret to the solution lies in social data

Data is not only useful in solving homicide cases, but can also play a crucial role in curbing the further spread of the Corona virus. De Kock: “Every form of matter also has anti-matter and I think that this is where the secret to the solution lies. You see that the number of infections in China is stabilizing or even decreasing. You could even create (what I call) anti-epidemic info with data. People who are getting better, for example. With this, you can see how it’s disappearing and which measures have played a role in that.”

According to De Kock, this will become all the more important if the virus rears its head again. “Infections will most likely decline during the hot summer months. But what can we do next year if infections pick up again? How are we going to contain that? In the data we are collecting now, we can find out which measures are effective. We can map out where it’s coming from. The spread of this virus is caused by – as we currently believe – through social contacts. Much of that social data is available and we could use it.”