Contact tracing for COVID-19 shows potential of ‘data for good’

By Gary Mangiofico, Special to CalMatters

As public health officials and policymakers grapple with strategies to contain the spread of the COVID-19 in the United States, one area of focus is contact tracing of individuals who have tested positive for the coronavirus.

While contact tracing is not new – it has been long used in the infectious disease community to monitor those infected and to notify others of possible exposure – the technology community quickly rose to the unprecedented challenge of using it in this pandemic.

Just last month, Google and Apple announced a new disease-monitoring capability that could be embedded into smartphones. In a joint statement, the companies said they “hope to harness the power of technology to help countries around the world slow the spread of COVID-19 and accelerate the return of everyday life.”

Of course, technological innovation can’t match the courage, dedication and life-saving actions of doctors, nurses and first responders, but there are numerous examples of technology companies using data to assist those on the front lines, in the private sector and in government working to combat this crisis.

Laboratorians and academic researchers are importing and contextualizing de-identified data for “hot spot” mapping and to inform decision-making on where to deploy public health resources. Aggregate data on demographics, socioeconomic status, insurance coverage, access to care and outcomes help pinpoint populations and regions of over- and/or underutilization of health care services. 

The Google-Apple app will maintain Bluetooth contacts on individual phones, rather than central servers – a critical differentiator that allows data to advance public health goals without sacrificing individual personal privacy, which is critically important. 

As elected officials focus on economic recovery, they should consider the tectonic shifts that have occurred over the last three months and assign greater value to policies that promote the good use of data along with appropriate considerations for personal privacy. That will require differentiating between thoughtful data-dependent initiatives that protect personal privacy, and those that are intended to stop companies from using data in every circumstance, even for the common good.  Ensuring clarity of intent and transparency are critical for these efforts to be successful.

To start, California needs to expand innovative public-private partnerships in commerce, logistics and other industries, given the success of these partnerships in responding to the health crisis. Apps that use real-time data to track vehicle diagnostics, driving patterns and goods location also offer potential to alleviate traffic congestion as employees matriculate back into their workplaces.

Second, the state needs to look for acceptable ways to embrace, and not automatically reject, de-identified data as an essential element of business and government operations. The overarching goal should be to protect privacy and ensure no harm comes from the use of this data. 

California already has the most comprehensive privacy law in the nation and emphasis should be on building clarity, simplicity and business friendly regulations to support economic recovery while protecting residents’ privacy rights.

Finally, the state should use data and technology to build more efficient, environmentally advanced and sustainable systems in critical areas such as health care. Telehealth is providing medical care to limit the risk posed by COVID-19. While it cannot replace face-to-face health services that are critical to many Californians, data and technology have made this alternative an effective addition. With billions of dollars of health care financial assistance coming to California, state officials should use the data compiled during this crisis to build a better delivery system.

In the last two years, the state Legislature has addressed the public’s desire to have personal information protected. Now, rather than creating more barriers to advancing data sharing, California should embrace the appropriate use of data to provide a wealth of insights and better outcomes for Californians while ensuring no one is harmed. This will demonstrate the value of data in promoting a safe and productive future.

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Gary Mangiofico is executive professor of Organizational Theory and Management at the Pepperdine Graziadio Business School, [email protected] He wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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