Taiwan used cellphone tracking, big data to contain spread of COVID-19 — should Canada do the same?

Given its proximity to China, the COVID-19 outbreak could have hit Taiwan hard.

More than 400,000 of its citizens work in mainland China. Yet, weeks into the epidemic, Taiwan has fewer than 50 cases.

A recent article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) suggests the country’s use of big data analytics and cellphone tracking helped officials contain the virus’ spread.

“Early on there were models that predicted that Taiwan was going to be maybe the second or third country (with the highest number of cases) but Taiwan is way down the list,” said the paper’s author, Dr. Jason Wang, a pediatrics professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

In the early days of the outbreak, “Taiwan leveraged its national health insurance database and integrated it with its immigration and customs database to begin the creation of big data for analytics,” the JAMA publication explains.

If a person went to a clinic or doctor’s office, that data would generate alerts based on the patient’s symptoms and travel history. At the borders, those considered low risk were sent a pass via text message allowing them entry. Anyone considered high risk was put into quarantine at home and tracked through their mobile phone to ensure that they remained at home during the incubation period.

Dr. Wang hopes other countries will take note of Taiwan’s success.

“I think this is an opportunity to start very seriously thinking about how (data analytics) can enhance public health practice,”  he said.

“Big companies like Google and Facebook are already tracking (us). Google knows where we are going next. Can we put that into good use for a while to contain the virus? We really need to think about guidelines to use this technology in a public health crisis.”

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