Tracking the spread of COVID-19 in Alabama one cell phone at a time

Jun 4, 2020

An APR News Feature

The number of COVID-19 cases in Alabama has jumped by thirty percent over the past two weeks. The State Department of Health puts out data on a county by county basis. This dashboard includes things like the number of deaths, the number of cases, and how many people have recovered. One area of interest is how the virus is spread from person to person. Apple and Google have announced a high tech way of doing that. Experts on that subject here in Alabama are saying watch what you wish for.

Say the word "tracking" and the classic James Bond film Goldfinger might come to mind. Film buffs will tell you it’s notable because it had the first spy car with all the gadgets. For this story, it’s the dashboard that’s the point. One gizmo was a small handheld homing device. But, of course that’s one super spy tracking one super villain. But, what if you mean following thousands of people all at once? One high tech company demonstrated how to answer that question by asking this one.

Jake Ellenberg is an Alabama native and a graduate of the University of Alabama. He’s also the chief marketing officer of XMode. But, that doesn’t mean Ellenberg’s completely forgotten his days as a college student.

"I don’t know you, me personally, I’m from south Alabama,” he said. “I know spring break is paced out with people from all the country.”

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Here’s where spring break converged with contact tracing. XMode works with the makers of online apps that customers download for free on their mobile phones. That deal includes clicking OK on what’s often a wordy agreement with the app company, which can include knowing where that phone goes. XMode software does the tracking with GPS data. Ellenberg’s clients wanted a demonstration of the tracking software, so he said his company gave them one with volunteers at spring break.

“I think one of things we wanted to showcase, is just how connected the United States is, and how far a gathering from one spring break beach could reach,” Ellenberg said. “And we showed one device made it all the way to Canada.”

That’s why if you had a certain app on your phone, and you visited a hamburger joint, coupons for that restaurant might pop up on your phone later on. XMode’s clients knew you were there by tracking you. XMode helps them crunch those numbers so the app makers can sell it, for example, to that hamburger chain.

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“If the product is free, then you are the product,” he said.

Remember XMode’s tracking experiment during spring break? Ellenberg asks what if the point was tracing people who had COVID-19.

“If 1 to 2 percent of those devices were actually people infected with COVID, then the spread could have been way bigger than we were thinking,” he said. “Florida spring break, yeah that’s a pretty busy time.”

Apple and Google are working on an app that supposed to track the spread of the coronavirus. The University of Alabama system said it wants to work with the two high tech giants to develop the app for members of its student body. Young people who volunteer to participate might be asked to check in every few days on whether they feel sick. Ellenberg said those who click yes get the system going.

“You could then use that device as a kind of a start off device, to where when other devices passed it, you can let them know in the past twenty four hours, you can even use historical data to see what devices that device may have come in contact with,” he said.

“I’m not sure I would be so willing to do that, even though I’m quite concerned about the spread of COVID-19,” said Leslie Dixon, an instructor at the University of Alabama, specializing in legal issues and ethics when it comes to high technology. "I think a communicable disease, certainly knowing who you are around, and what kind of exposure that might have led to, might be every important."

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That’s the upside of contact tracing. It’s the downside that concerns Dixon.

“What would happen as a result of this information happening?” she said. “Could this be used by people to market things to you? Would it maybe market even to people around you? This is really concerning.”

Even de-identifying the data might not solve the problem. That’s a process where information is scrubbed so no one is identified. Dixon points to a study by MIT where 95 percent of de-identified data can be re-identified. In addition to the Apple and Google project, the University of Alabama in Birmingham is reportedly working with a local developer to create a separate app that addresses the tracking and privacy issues. So, assuming all those problems are addressed and the app is used, that still might not be the end of it.

“It’s going to be interesting in what the responses are, and the response rate. And, if people are going to be will to keep doing that,” said Dr. Gregg Bell, who specializes in contact tracing at the University of Alabama.

He spends a lot of time convincing people to download mobile phone apps that provide data for academic research. He said college students are a tough crowd.

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“The annoyance factor is going to be a big issue with that group, I’m afraid,” he said.

The annoyance factor Bell is referring to are the notifications that may pop up on the phones of students using the COVID-19 contact tracing. Bell’s advice is for app designers to ask their questions and get their answers fast.

“If someone gets that survey and they even spend five minutes with it, the first time. The likelihood of them doing it again is very low,” Bell said.

That’s assuming students will participate at all. Bell said college aged young people are familiar with how on-line technology works. If that true, then these students might have little trouble switching off an app that gets a little too irritating. Then, Bell said, there’s what to do with the data.

“It used to be that we locked data in file cabinets,” Bell said. “Things are much more complicated now. We’ll have to show people that now we can store their data, use it ethically, and for the purpose that it was intended.”

Bell said comes down to the issue of trust.

“For some people you’re never going to be able to gain that trust,” he said.

One way to make it all work, could be to treat the COVID-19 data like any other research project. Universities set specific boundaries on how data is gathered, how it’s stored, and how it’s transmitted. Bell said it also spells out what’s off limits.

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"In research, we’re allowed to use the data for one particular study,” he said. “If we have data that would be useful in another study, if we don’t have permission, we can’t use it and we don’t use it."

One thing that may be working in favor of developers of a COVID-19 tracking app is quote attributed to Mark Zukerberg, one of the founders of Facebook. Bell paraphrases.

“Forget about privacy, you never had any,” Bell said.

There may be another thing that could make COVID-19 tracking data available.

“Nobody reads, and that’s an uphill battle,” Ellenberg said.

He’s referring to the pretty wordy data sharing agreement that may be associated with the COVID-19 app. It’s his contention that a lot of people just click OK. No matter what happens in the near future with COVID-19 tracking technology. Ellenberg said it may up to future research with the tracking numbers to see what worked and what didn’t.

“Years from now, when there’s a lot of research being done. As far as how did human mobility, and the stopping of it, with all of these lockdowns—how did that stop, or slow, the spread of COVID?” he said.

However it goes, the University of Alabama system is planning for students to return, perhaps in the fall, so the clock is ticking for all parties involved in the COVID-19 tracking app.