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Emergency alerting system based on telco location data for the public good

In times of crisis, especially like the current Covid-19 one, the world is coming together with a common goal – unite forces in order to stabilize the public health. Policymakers gather and invite professionals from various spheres of public institutions, data scientists, health organizations, entrepreneurs, privacy protection & ethical officers and as well as large corporates to share their expertise.

Telco operators belong to the group of large enterprises with lots of valuable ripe data of our behavior in the physical world. Placed into the Covid-19 context, cell carriers may perfectly understand the location and movements of the people. Estimates indicate that 4,78 billion people around the world use a mobile phone on daily basis, which give cell carriers access to more than 61,5% of global population (Turner, 2020).

It might sound intimidating; however, the value in using the data seems undisputed and various approaches to data privacy still allow for valuable use-cases for the public good while maintaining an individual’s privacy. Even the EU Commission approached major European telecom operators to provide users data in order to monitor the situation and utilize the technology of mobility evolution. “The idea is to analyse mobility patterns including the impact of confinement measures on the intensity of contacts, and hence the risks of contamination. This would be an important — and proportionate — input for tools that are modelling the spread of the virus, and would also allow to assess the current measures adopted to contain the pandemic.” stated the European Commission (Lomas, 2020).

State surveillance, privacy & ethical questions

As mentioned earlier, location data are one of the most effective way to track the mobility of people, which is an important epidemiological factor in modeling the spread of a disease and assessing the efficacy of introduced restrictions. Privacy issues connected with the fear of being under the constant surveillance is surely an issue, not to be taken lightly.

Technology experts need to partner with privacy officers in order to tackle the security concerns, data retention, anonymization and data aggregation. Luckily, the EU legislation with its GDPR strict norms do not allow unlimited access to handle and further work on data modelling, not even in the times of serious infection spread. Teams of experts have to find common ground to see the patterns in mobility evolution, but at the same time taking into consideration the privacy of those who did not give any consent to mobile operators to further utilize their data.

A full spectrum of approaches

Despite the shared objective of stopping the pandemic and understand the patterns of infection spread, we have seen different approaches to handle location data around the world (originating from the telco operators or GPS tracking apps). It is the governor of data that creates two categories: initiatives taken by governments, or tech enterprises. Ready-made solutions that suits both approaches happen to be the most suited when time is of the essence.

Governmental institutions apply monitoring & emergency notification system, which naturally differs country by country reflecting the political norms. In China, taken measures are considered as extreme and privacy invading (compared to the EU law). China has successfully tackled the virus spread at the cost of tracking the location data without specific consent of the infected ones, temporary economic blackout; people ordered to stay lock-outed in the quarantine.

South Korea or the Czech Republic are taking a moderate approach with requesting the permission of people diagnosed with the corona virus that their position, location and movement can be used to notify people in their vicinity, or those that might have been in personal contact over the last 14 days.

A so called “privacy-first model” is currently being deployed in Belgium where the government works closely with the privacy issues experts in order to retrieve from the telco data only anonymized and aggregated intelligence. Belgium gathered data form three major telco operators to gain very precise outcomes. Location data of carrier users are filtered, fully anonymized and aggregated, then regrouped. Results are consequently communicated to the government that examines them on weekly emergency meetings trying to understand whether the current measures are sufficient or the regulations need to be stricter (to find out more, listen to the latest episode of the Babbage podcast by The Economist).

There is thus an entire spectrum of approaches a government can take in the use of telecommunication data. With all approaches there should be sunset clauses in place, that make it clear when any such use is no longer in the public interest. And finally, it should be clearly communicated how and for what the data is being used.

Technology companies are playing their part

From the other side of coin come tech companies who already partner with the telco operators in order to process and make sense of telco data. An example is the tried & tested solution called Market Locator by Instarea, which on BAU days brings value to telco operators in a form of location intelligence & targeted messaging. The same capabilities are now proving essential for crisis information notifications and intelligence.

Since the infection started spreading around the Slovakia and the Czech Republic, Instarea was able to use Market Locator in order to provide instant assistance to the municipalities across the Slovak and Czech cities and municipalities for localized crises communication.

Here are some of the concrete examples being used in some of the countries Instarea operates its platforms (and could thus be quickly deployed in any country):

  • Providing statistical data on when & how many people returned to the country from foreign affected countries + where they are currently located inside the country = for improved disease spread modelling
  •  Once a patient with confirmed Covid-19 virus provides explicit permission to the Ministry of Health they can look at his / her movement data in the past 14 days to try to trace & identify potential infections
  •  Notifications sent to people who should be in quarantine, but leave their home (in a form of SMS notification, “you should be in quarantine for another X days, you could be liable for a fine if you do not obey the quarantine”)
  • Local information via SMS notifications to at risk demographics such as the elderly to convey information and a number they can call if they need to order food (as such initiates are provided on a local level these commutations are sent out by local city officials who are provided with an account in Market Locator and communicate info on local activities / local information).

In total, hundreds of thousands of messages are being sent and are proving very effective in keeping the public informed and obeying the government rules, as well as keeping hoaxes at bay.

Market Locator telco data processing platform

The Market Locator platform is built specifically for telco providers – to unlock the value in their residual data. The technology involves multiple processes, starting with processing of the raw data inside the telcos infrastructure (anonymizing and aggregating it), then creating statistical data outputs, visualizing them and finally the ability to create targeted communications. This approach allows one Market Locator front-end to be connected to multiple telco “back-ends”, making sure each telcos data remains private & secure, but still allows for a “single point of truth”.

As the solution is designed as a self-service tool, it provides the communication and data capabilities in an intuitive form. Like the municipality officials who are able to seek through the heat map, filter through population layers and send SMS notification to target groups (elderly, or who have recently been to Italy…). It’s an Emergency Alerting System that is simple to use, has gained great amount of utilization and can be simply used for various notification systems across the crisis management.

Intuitive heat map & reports for disease modeling

Select location in Market Locator

Filtering and real-time updates

Apply Filters in Market Locator

SMS emergency alert

Set up campaign in Market Locator

Currently the world’s clear focus is to solve the Covid-19 crisis and to minimize the damages it has directly or indirectly created. The end might not yet be knocking at the door, but corona virus has already taught us a thing or two about the emergency situations:

  • governments need to be agile
  • experts from various fields must cooperate
  • all must act wise & fast

We still remember painful memories of the year 2019 when the forests and woods were burning in Australia, Siberia, Amazon, California, Lebanon and Indonesia. (Padisson, 2020) Unfortunately, natural disasters or infections cannot be predicted, but technology can help us stay prepared. Solutions that are able to keep people informed throughout the disaster / epidemic spread shall be a regular asset for states as well as for telcos.

Such platforms should be a piece of the prevention package for the crisis committees – providing a means for emergency communication and a source of hard facts. They need not be perfect solutions, but together they might act as reliable & sufficient information source. Like mixing the telco location data with GPS or Bluetooth data from smartphone apps. GPS spatial data are more precise types of location data compared to cell location data, but the latter are more representative as they don’t depend on mobile data or a user having an app installed. They are complements nevertheless as the tech giant Google showcased in the Covid-19 mobility reports based on the GPS data in the past couple of days. Additionally, companies such as Sygic are developing apps that use Bluetooth handshake data to precisely track previous contacts of an infected person. There is no single answer, its rather a toolbox with various tools for various challenges.

Are you a telco?

Many great initiatives around the globe are helping to tackle the crisis. Be the next one, contact us for more information on how we could deploy a solution like Market Locator in your country within a month. #stayinformed #socialdistancing #emergencyalerts

Also take a look at demo of TellStory, real-time updated BI tool showcasing the COVID-19 situation worldwide. Powered by QikkDB (qikk.ly), the super-fast database.


https://www.bankmycell.com/blog/how-many-phones-are-in-the-worldhttps://techcrunch.com/2020/03/27/telco-metadata-grab-is-for-modelling-covid-19-spread-not-tracking-citizens-says-ec https://www.economist.com/podcasts/2020/04/01/can-mobile-phone-data-help-curb-contagion https://www.huffpost.com/entry/wildfires-california-amazon-indonesia-climate-change_n_5dcd3f4ee4b0d43931d01baf

Eliska Dzurnakova

Eliska is a business development associate at Instarea.

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