Back in 2011, I co-created a research app called “FluPhone.” The idea was to use smartphone location data to measure, model and predict how influenza is passed between individuals, and how people change their social behaviour in response to an outbreak. As we’re seeing with COVID-19, people are radically altering how they behave to avoid infection and spreading illness, or because they are already ill.

The full cost of this virus, in terms of the lives and livelihoods lost, is yet to be seen. What is clear is that this is an urgent opportunity for scientists, the NHS and other health services around the world to use smartphones and their owners to gather valuable data on an unfolding pandemic. This data could not only provide crucial intelligence about how this pandemic is evolving, but also help us organise against the onslaught and develop effective, evidence-based strategies for coping with future outbreaks.

It would be unbelievably useful for the authorities, community leaders and individuals looking after their loved ones to have a good idea of where and when people have become affected, and who has been marked as recovered from infection.

There could be significant benefit in having a nationally implemented app tracking not only who is getting COVID-19, but also who has recovered from infection—perhaps with the NHS certifying them as “all clear.” Though nothing is certain in these times, it is broadly expected that people who have recovered from coronavirus infection will be immune to further infections, and no longer infectious themselves. These people could then be called upon, where willing, to work in care homes, nursing, community support roles—anywhere the vulnerable need help.

Our FluPhone app was basic in terms of the granularity of data it collected. A new version could gather location/proximity data via a fusion of GPS, Bluetooth, cellular and Wi-Fi. There are several research groups around the world who have already contacted us and are working on their own versions of the FluPhone concept. Getting much more accurate population-level data (by city block or cell tower, say) for the epidemiologists and modelers would enable the government to develop optimal policy interventions.

Inevitably there are caveats to producing this sort of technology, and limitations. Privacy is a big one. Any app system and accompanying database must comply be designed with comprehensive, user-centric privacy policies built in. Another issue is that COVID-19 is not necessarily passed between individuals who come within a few metres of each other in any given moment in any given locale. And of course you could catch it from someone you’ve never laid eyes on, courtesy of a door handle. These issues are explored in more depth in this excellent Wired article

All that said, I carried out a quick survey of half a dozen young professionals to see if they would use such an app today, and the answer was a resounding yes. These are extraordinary days. A war-time feeling is in the air, and I think people are ready and able to contribute to the fight against COVID-19 in any way they can. Enlisting people and their smartphones in this effort is a no-brainer.

Edited by Science Writer Sean O’Neill