Covid Hotspot Tracking: How does it work?
By now we should all know the key behaviors to stay safe during this pandemic, wearing face coverings, washing hands, keeping social distance. However, when armed with the right information at the right time, your cell phone data may help local health officials provide another layer of safety to your routine.
The Big Picture
On the macro level, researchers at Colorado State University have found that collecting data from wireless cellular networks can help locate hotspots where Covid spread is at high risk. Privacy advocates might ask if their personal mobile devices are being tracked. The answer to that question is no. The program monitors anonymous data transmitted by pedestrians in high density urban areas.
Typically, highly dense urban areas have more cell sites than more wide open suburban and rural locations. These urban areas are more prone to spread Covid-19 among large groups of people moving around in a concentrated area. By tapping into cell tower hand-overs, as pedestrians cross cell boundaries, researchers can develop real time information regarding population density and movement in a given urban area. When density and mobility of phones increases, the risk of Covid spread also increases. High risk areas can be quickly identified and relayed to appropriate authorities. Actions to can be taken to mitigate the risk by closing off areas, re-routing pedestrians or promoting stronger social distancing practices in a given area.
For example, a Saturday night pub crawl in an urban area might develop into a larger than expected crowd event. Notifications could quickly be sent to bars and pubs in the path that early closure is warranted to control a potential spread event.
The cell data for this application is anonymous mobile phone movement information and does not identify or track an individual user. This macro-approach to tracking potential spread hotspots does not require individual participation so accuracy is not dependent on user acceptance. The information is typically being collected by cell providers as they manage local cell site demand and user movement.
How Does It Work?
Wireless carriers have access to vast amounts of data crossing their networks. In addition to mobile phone user conversations, there are separate channels of data used by carriers to manage the system. This signalling data includes such things as call set up, individual billing data, user location information, cell selection and hand-off information. In urban areas cell site density can range from 2km to as close as 10 meters providing very accurate signalling data on the movement of pedestrians in transit.
The challenge is how to strip out the important location and hand-off information from other user identifiable information. Then, how to transport data to tools that can provide actionable information from raw data. The solution to this complex problem is made simple through the use of network TAPs. These devices can filter critical hand-off data from user conversations and send a mirror copy of that data to tools that will analyze movements and create real time reports. TAPs can connect to network links without adding delay or impacting live network traffic. Advanced features can filter data, aggregate links, integrate APIs for machine to machine conversation and more.
The Individual Level
In addition to large scale, anonymous tracking of urban movement, applications are available to warn users if they are coming in close contact with an infected individual or a potential Covid carrier. Citizen SafeTrace, for example, is an app that automates contact tracing and also alerts the user if they have come into contact with a known infected person. These applications, however, rely on a critical mass of users in a given area and require personal identification such as uploading of user Covid test results. The potential is great to help keep users safe in dense urban areas assuming broad cooperation among active users. It is estimated that 20% of New Yorkers are using the app.
Broad Utilization of TAPs
Many network engineers and managers think of TAPs as a basic diagnostic tool when, in fact, there are many interesting applications that use TAPs as the foundation of information retrieval. Government agencies, mobile telephone carriers, global tech companies, cloud service providers and SMB enterprise networks all utilize TAPs to connect links to critical analytic and security tools. New applications and uses for safe and accurate network visibility are constantly being developed. Information is key as we fight through this global pandemic working hard to stop the spread. Network Critical visibility experts are available to work with network managers and engineers on workforce transition, contact tracing and employee safety issues as we navigate the new normal together. Go to www.networkcritical.com/new-normal for more information.