TECH | Apr 24, 2020

Coronavirus emergency and Big Data

How can data help us in Phase 2

The current news is flooding us with more or less truthful information regarding the countless facets of the Coronavirus pandemic.

I’m talking about news concerning the current situation, reported in articles, publications, posts on social networks, accompanied by graphs and dashboards describing the “pandemic numbers”, but also about how it could evolve thanks to a massive use of predictive analyses and scenario simulations, based on the numbers collected by the institutions at all geographic, political and organizational levels and made available also in the form of open data.

How much data is on the Internet?

This is just the tip of the iceberg which represents the amount of data that is hitting us citizens. Behind the scenes, data collection is frenzied and volumes and exchanges are immensely larger. Just think of the information which researchers process to study medicines in order to treat the symptoms and causes of the disease in the various forms in which it occurs, as well as to create a vaccine.

The quantity of data exchanged on the Internet both in terms of documentation and audio and video for online meetings, has exploded, thanks also to the increase in smart working and to virtual lessons which have put a strain even on platforms such as Microsoft Azure, which reached its full capacity on 24 March 2020.

How can data help us in Phase 2?

We are getting used to all this, taking for granted that the so-called Phase 1 of the pandemic reveals itself, for the lucky ones, through this collection of digital variations, but we are now called to prepare for Phase 2 (at last, I may add!), that is, our first attempt to live with a problem that will not leave us soon, but which cannot wipe out the fact that we are social animals. Children must go to school and interact with their peers, adults must resume work as well as enjoy some leisure time together, and the elderly must be able to spend some quality time with their grandchildren and friends, as well as be protected by society with particular attention. None of this appears to be a foregone conclusion, in fact, now there is almost a feeling of resignation that makes us view what was normal as a mirage.

An app for contact tracing

The “Immuni” app was created for this purpose: adopted by the Government and now being tested to cope with Phase 2, downloadable on a voluntary and free basis, from the Android play store and from the Apple store for iOS devices. The application is based on Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology and stores the user’s data on his/her device, exchanged via Bluetooth with neighboring devices.

The possibility of adopting apps based on mobile phones’ GPS systems, such as the various app options available in South Korea, where for example the “Corona 100m” app was already downloadable in February, is much more debated. By crossing the geolocation data of the user with public government databases, this allows users to see the date on which a patient was confirmed positive (as well as various personal data) and the distance in relation to any potential risk places. The solution adopted by South Korea which has proved extremely effective, however, fully exploited the citizen’s private data and by-passed various aspects concerning privacy rights which are subject to an in-depth analysis in Italy and Europe.

This technological solution has in any case proved that two further elements (testing and treating) which make up the now known axiom of the “three T’s”, consisting of Testing, Tracing, Treating, which imply an organizational system at a social and health care level and not only a purely technological one, must be taken into account.

What can Big Data do

Big Data Analysis entered the game for data collection by supporting Business Intelligence or Machine Learning activities, but now it has to perform another task. We are talking about integrating edge-computing solutions with IoT, stream processing, no longer necessarily Data Lake on batch data. We are talking about systems dedicated to Contact Tracing, which must interact with the sensors linked to the validation of swabs or, in a simplified version, that are able to intercept app data on smartphones.

But why intercept all these signals and centralize them in a single collection point? Isn’t it enough that apps or at-the-edge systems should exchange information with each other, for example by providing an alert if a person positive to Covid-19 or a citizen/user has not renewed the test or has never taken it? With a massive spread among informed and consenting adults, it could certainly be an effective system to recover some freedom, but let’s think of more sensitive scenarios such as schools.

Schools are the crucial point in a network of contagions, in which families come into contact with each other, but they are also a fundamental and indispensable component of our society. At school, children do not carry cell phones and are not responsible for their actions; therefore, a coordinated monitoring system is necessary, not one left to do-it-yourself improvisation, also able to highlight situations of social unease which require an intervention by the institutions.

The data collection procedure must therefore be a controlled frequency one and follow other, including less sophisticated, methods, allowing school managers to “take roll call” by means of new, but not too tough, tools. A shared and intelligent monitoring platform can make the difference to limit flaws and relieve families from the burden of applying containment policies. Clearly, data can be used to study trends, make forecasts, provide advice and advanced analyses in general on at-rest data, but the power supply and processing of the system must be mainly in real time (on-the-fly data) or near real time, as must the system’s reports and outputs.

Schools or health care institutions, as well as nursing homes or companies, which need long-term monitoring of their public, can benefit from dedicated and specialized platforms. Needless to say, the fragmentation of solutions is a waste of resources and provides less reliable results, which is why the common effort must aim at simplifying and choosing unique tools and platforms for synergistic action, which could pave the way for Phase 2-linked strategies calibrated on the citizen according to the cluster to which he/she belongs (age, residence, outcome of previous swabs, etc.), such as:

  1. how to plan solutions for the movement of individuals, not only from Municipality to Municipality but also within larger geographical areas, suggesting the safest and most effective ways
  2. how often swab tests should be repeated
  3. which services can be accessed (flights, trains, private clinics, gyms and sports centers) based on personal characteristics.

All this, precisely because of the nature of Big Data that work on large volumes and generalize, without having to affect the user’s privacy.

Thinking in even more virtuous terms, information technology and Big Data in particular will be able to and have to understand how the phenomenon of generating new outbreaks is triggered, once the lockdown is lifted and trips resume and, following Bill Gates’ 2015 auspices, how a more mature and sustainable society will be able to equip itself to prevent and contain new pandemics.

Monica Franceschini