Like it or not, we have all become rather more familiar with the concept of contact tracing in recent months. It is a critical element in the global fight against COVID-19, theoretically enabling governments and healthcare organisations to rapidly track and isolate individuals who may have come into contact with an infected person.
A highly efficient contact tracing programme certainly seems to have been the bedrock of the most successful COVID-19 mitigation strategies on the planet. South Korea, for example, flattened its coronavirus curve with a rigorous approach to testing, tracing and containment.
But what is the role of the IoT within contact tracing?
Many of us have become familiar with the principles of mobile apps for contact tracing – using Bluetooth technology, they identify which mobile devices have been in close proximity to each other for a certain amount of time. When a user tests positively for COVID-19, an alert is sent to those devices which have been near said user.
There are plenty of advantages to this approach amongst the general public, but the approach becomes more problematic in indoor environments such as industrial and commercial spaces. Factories, office buildings, department stores, hotels – many of these are planning their strategies for reopening, and will need to welcome back hundreds if not thousands of people. Bluetooth technology may not be accurate enough in these settings to support a robust contact tracing model.
Instead, WiFi-based contact tracing strategies could be a better fit. This would involve deploying a network of connected sensors throughout the premises, and then asking staff to download a relevant app to their mobile devices, and carry those with them throughout the building – more or less as usual. Battery-operated WiFi-enabled devices could be provided to workers who don’t own mobile devices.
In other words, it involves deploying an IoT network within the environment. Each IoT sensor would be able to detect when one or more mobile devices is in particular proximity to it, and potentially sound an alert if the area is getting too crowded. This could offer a dynamic way of managing crowd density and social distancing throughout the day, whilst also keeping a record of who has been near whom, in the case of an individual testing positive.
One aspect of the relationship between the IoT and contact tracing, then, is in the deployment of IoT ecosystems – another is in the design and manufacture of the IoT devices which underpin those ecosystems.
For organisations in the business of developing and building IoT devices, contact tracing could clearly offer a whole new line of business – but, as ever, privacy and security are absolutely vital. Each device needs to clearly identifiable and verified, and the information captured must be carefully protected at the point of generation, in transit and in storage. There are also questions over how users of such apps are made aware of which data is being collected, why and how. As ever, the most stringent ethical considerations need to be paid to data privacy and security, and empowering users to make meaningful choices with regard to their data, whilst also delivering an effective product.
The IoT could pay a crucial role, then, in enabling effective and robust contact tracing mechanisms in a range of settings – and ultimately helping people get back to work – and play.