How China, South Korea and Taiwan are using tech to curb coronavirus outbreak

To help with contact tracing, mobile phone users can text their telcos for a list of locations they have visited. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Various apps have been created in China, South Korea and Taiwan to exploit smartphone technologies for everything from contact tracing to enforcing quarantines that require people who have been exposed to the coronavirus to stay at home.

In China's capital Beijing, for instance, two applets "Beijing Cares" and "Beijing Health Buddy" have been integrated into the ubiquitous WeChat app.

Each city or municipality has its own version of the applet.

People under quarantine are also made to input their daily temperature and health status into the app. When the isolation period is over, a "healthy status" page is generated, which users can flash at buildings and malls to gain entry.

To help with contact tracing, mobile phone users can text their telcos for a list of locations they have visited. But this has had its shortcomings: Some users reported visiting hundreds of towns in a day after taking a train because phones check in with every cell tower along the way.

Despite the cutting-edge technology deployed across the city, technology like facial recognition is ineffective on a population clad in face masks.

The authorities have thus resorted to falling back on community workers, a network of local Communist Party cadres, to enforce quarantine and isolation policies, and to check on sick residents.

Over in South Korea, the government has developed a "self health check" mobile app to keep tabs on travellers entering the country, as well as citizens returning from overseas.

The health authorities have also developed a global positioning system (GPS) enabled mobile app to monitor people under quarantine. An alarm goes off if they leave the designated isolation zone.

GPS data is also used in contact tracing. Investigators from the Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, which is managing the outbreak, will interview patients first, then verify their whereabouts by checking closed-circuit television camera footage, credit card records and mobile phone GPS data.

The government then releases details about the patients' travel history - via text messages on the mobile phone and state-managed websites - so the public can avoid places where the virus was once active. But the government's willingness to be open and transparent has raised questions about privacy.

There were also some private sector initiatives. The GPS-enabled Corona 100m, for example, allows users to see how close they are to places that coronavirus patients visited before testing positive. It also offers information on when the patients tested positive for the virus, as well as their nationality, gender and age.

Another app, Coronamap, allows users to see at one glance where patients are warded on a map. It also offers information about the dates the cases were confirmed, the names of the hospitals and places that the patients visited before testing positive.

In Taiwan, Reuters reported the use of the mobile phone's location tracking technology to create an "electronic fence" to ensure people who are quarantined stay in their homes.

The system monitors phone signals to alert local police and officials if those in home quarantine move away from their address or turn off their phones. The authorities will contact or visit those who trigger an alert within 15 minutes.

Privacy concerns have limited the use of location data in efforts to fight the coronavirus in countries such as the United States.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2020, with the headline How China, South Korea and Taiwan are using tech to curb coronavirus outbreak. Subscribe