COVID-19: How Apps, QR Codes, Robotics, and AI are Being Used to Fight the Pandemic

Post by 
Kenneth Shen
Published 
March 28, 2020
T

oday, the United States broke 100,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases, surpassing every other country in the world. New York City reports the highest volume of 911 calls since 9/11

Ending this global pandemic quickly will require attacking it from every angle. Today, we will examine the technological non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) deployed by countries across the world to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

We’ll be looking extensively at China’s deployment of:

  • Live Tracking Maps and Apps
  • QR Codes
  • Drones
  • Robotics
  • Facial Recognition, AI, and Supercomputing

We will also touch on:

  • A South Korean App: Corona 100M
  • Singapore's App: TraceTogether 
  • Apps from Bolivia, India, Vietnam, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil 

China

Live Tracking Maps and Mobile Apps

China’s tech giants (Baidu, Tencent,) as well as the Chinese National Health Service developed live tracking apps early in the pandemic that show users hyper-local data. Based on their current location, users can see nearby suspected, confirmed, and recovered cases of COVID-19. They can drill down on nearby cases to the date of infection, distance from current location, street address, and building number. 

A widely-used mobile platform that tracks and maps coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in China.

Users can also scan their immediate area (a community complex, or neighborhood) and get the number of nearby cases, their status, the date and time of infection, and specific locations the patients had prior contact with such as stores or restaurants.

These apps have seen widespread adoption across nearly all of China’s major metropolitan areas, helping to educate healthy residents on zones to avoid, reducing potential infections. 

Baidu and Tencent have also launched TeleHealth services that provide free health consultation services to provide quick diagnosis tools for suspected patients. 

An Extension to China’s Already Extensive QR Code Strategy

Anyone who's spent a meaningful amount of time in China in the past five years knows that QR codes are very much a way of life. From mobile payments to advertisements, QR codes can be found almost everywhere you look.

Now, China has extended this QR code system to assign citizens a colored code (green, yellow, or red) based on travel history, time spent in an outbreak zone, and relationships to infected individuals. 

A driver showing his green health code to enter an apartment complex in China. Source SCMP

Green allows for free movement, where yellow and red represent quarantine restrictions. The color code is updated nightly and checked when accessing community facilities, restaurants, office buildings, public spaces, and more. 

The ethicality and accuracy of this system have been criticized, citing potential mislabeling and a lack of transparency into the system’s methodology (SCMP).

A local report shows more extensive use of QR codes as a system to track movement and surveil residents that extends into nearly every facet of daily life

A McDonald's customer in China scanning a QR code before ordering.

While ordering food in-person at a McDonalds in Nanjing, customers are required to scan a posted QR code and submit a form detailing whether they’ve been to Hubei Province (the outbreak epicenter) in the last 14-days, their state-issued ID number, and their contact information.

A McDonald's take-out seal in China showing the details and body temperature of the cook and person delivering the order.

When receiving a to-go order, the food is sealed with a label that logs the name of the cook, the person delivering the order, and a confirmation that their body temperature was normal (below 37.3°C/99.1°F).

A passenger scans a QR code when boarding a metro in Nanjing, China.

When riding on the metro, passengers are requested over the PA system to scan a QR code posted on the window of each cart, logging the time, metro cart number, and various trip details. This system likely acts as surveillance on the movement of people and a warning system to retroactively notify passengers should they have come near a later confirmed case. Many public spaces also mandate a QR code scan for digital contact tracing of any future infected cases.

A visitor in Nanjing, China scans a QR code before being considered for access to a public space.

Drones

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Drones have been used in China in a multitude of applications through their epidemic. 

Drones are commonly seen mounted with loudspeakers broadcasting public announcements, dispersing crowds of people, and even scolding citizens without masks on or violating other public health measures. Recently, drones have been used in Italy and Spain in this same fashion.

Drones are also used to scan crowds of people, even identifying persons in need of medical attention. Mounted with thermal cameras, drones can also check the body temperatures, similar to how newly deployed Chinese Police's smart helmets can scan crowds and match names and faces with body temperatures.

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Drone operators in Shenzhen, China using a DJI agriculture drone to aerially spray disinfectant. Source DJI

Custom and repurposed agricultural drones are being used to disinfect critical areas such as factories, residential areas, hospitals, and waste treatment plants. Drone manufacturer DJI has sprayed 3 million square meters (1.15 square miles) with disinfectant in Shenzhen, DJI’s headquartered city, and is helping 1,000 counties in China adopt the spray method. DJI claims this spraying method can be “50 times faster than traditional methods,” and intends to help disinfect 600 million square meters (232 square miles) across the country (DJI). The effectiveness of wide-scale disinfecting is questioned by some

Robotics

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Both autonomous and collaborative robots have been deployed in multiple ways across China, improving efficiency and minimizing human interaction.

In foodservice, these robots have been seen cooking rice, delivering food to healthcare workers, and acting as waiters bringing meals from kitchen to table without the need for a human (Business Insider).

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Robots deliver medicine to patients in the Infectious Diseases Ward of Guangdong Provincial People's Hospital, China. Source Sina

In hospitals in the Guangdong province, robots are acting as COVID-immune medicine delivery vehicles, minimizing possible hospital transmission. In Hubei, hospital robots are spraying disinfectant in isolation wards, ICUs, and operating rooms. In Shenyang, robots are checking temperatures of patients.

An autonomous delivery robot making its first delivery to a hospital in Wuhan, China earlier this month. Source CNN

Self-driving robots are also delivering supplies to hospitals treating COVID-19 patients, though seemingly only over short distances.  

Facial Recognition, AI, and Supercomputing 

In early March, Reuters interviewed the Chinese company, Hanwang Technology Ltd, which has produced technology that can recognize people even while wearing masks.

A software engineer works on a facial recognition program that identifies people when they wear a face mask. Hanwang (Hanvon) Technology Ltd. Beijing, China, March 6, 2020. Source Reuters/Thomas Peter

The company’s Vice President Huang Lei told Reuters that the system can “identify everyone in a crowd of 30 people within a second," to a 95% recognition rate with masks on, and 99.5% without masks on. Coupled with temperature sensors, the technology can log the identities of anyone passing by with a fever. 

In early March, Hanwang Technology Ltd claimed they had 200 clients in Beijing, including law enforcement, and expected many more across 20 provinces of China to install it soon (Reuters).

Meanwhile, China’s tech giant Tencent (and others) has also opened up their supercomputing resources to assist researchers in accelerating the timeline to find a cure. Another supercomputer-powered AI technology can give an early COVID-19 diagnosis in 10 seconds, based on a patient’s CT scan, to a reported 80% accuracy. 

Aside: China's Other Mitigation Strategies

The topic of this article is related to technological interventions, but we would be missing a big part of China's suppression strategy if we did not mention other NPIs the country is using. 

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These include:

  • Compulsory public mask use for citizens, by region (SCMP)
  • Reporting of body temperatures, compulsory mask use, and distancing of employees returning to work (Time)
  • Plastic shielding in rideshares (NBC)
  • Extensive state-sponsored public messaging displays (NPR)
  • Temperature screenings at freeway exits, building entrances, supermarket entrances, and neighborhood entrances, though its effectiveness has been questioned (Source 1, 2)
  • Barring non-residents and guests from residential communities, sometimes even requiring passwords for entry and passes for leaving (NYT)
  • Barring some pharmacies (varies by region) from selling analgesics to force people with symptoms to seek treatment at hospitals (NYT)
  • China closes its borders to most foreigners, suspending some existing Visas, March 26th (CNN)

South Korea 

Johns Hopkins Coronavirus COVID-19 Transmission Data South Korea, Hong Kong, USA, Japan, Singapore
Logarithmic scale. Latest daily numbers as of 8:30 p.m. March 25.Source: Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University Credit: Stephanie Adeline/NPR

South Korea has been the global poster-child for the effective outbreak control of COVID-19. How was it done? Some of the highest per-capita testing numbers, targeted isolation, and swift proactivity from the government are likely the biggest drivers. 

South Korean app: Corona 100M

But a wildly popular South Korean app, Corona 100M, likely played a part as well. Sourcing its data from public information and the Korea CDC, the app allows people to view individual case data: when they were infected, their nationality, gender, age, and where they visited. This data is then geo-referenced to show users how close they are areas the virus has been.

The app gets its name from one of its core features, a push-notification when the user comes within 100M (328 feet) of a place where an infected person recently was.

According to Google Play, the app was downloaded over 1M times in February, reaching as high as “20,000 downloads per hour” as Bae Won Seok, one of the developers states. This type of readily accessible, hyper-local, and easy to understand data likely played  slowing the spread of the virus through public awareness and education.

Singapore

Developed by Singapore GovTech and the Ministry of Health, TraceConnect uses Bluetooth technology to track the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19). Source Singapore

The Government of Singapore has developed an app that uses Bluetooth signals to provide a more privacy-oriented contact-tracing mobile app. 

Using a device’s Bluetooth signals, this app works in the background to create private networks of encrypted data that can help to identify anyone that an infected person came within proximity (Bluetooth range) with. 

For this Bluetooth networking technology to work effectively, a large portion of the population must have this app downloaded and running in the background. It’s a more passive form of app-based contact tracing, exchanging live public-facing data (as seen in China and SK apps) for more privatized data. 

This technology seems similar to how Tile’s Crowd Map and TrackR’s Crowd Locate currently work, and likely how Apple’s rumored tracking tags would work. 

Rest Of World

Bolivia's Coronavirus (COVID-19) tracking app.

A handful of countries now have government-developed or sponsored COVID-19 tracking apps that are readily available on the Apple and Google App Store. The image above shows the app from the Bolivian Government, providing its citizens with symptom information, live statistics, news, and emergency resources. 

Coronavirus (COVID-19) tracking apps from India, Vietnam, Oman, and Saudi Arabia.

The countries of India, Vietnam, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil (not pictured) also have similar apps that vary in complexity. 

The Bottom Line:

It’s great to see so many countries actively adopting technological NPIs to slow the spread of this public health crisis.

Many point to China and Korea as examples of effective mitigation of COVID-19 and look to use the infection data as examples to forecast the impacts of COVID-19 on other countries. When doing so it is important to also keep in mind the interventions at play in each respective country. 

Much of the technology deployed in China would have a hard time finding support in America, raising serious concerns over government control and privacy rights. The data used to build South Korea’s Corona 100M might also have a hard time finding the public eye in America due to privacy and HIPAA laws. 

We’re going to leave you with a question—should America pursue a more active, organized approach in deploying technology to combat COVID-19 and to what extent will this alter the narrative of privacy in the future? 

If you’d like to read more about adapting your business and marketing strategy for COVID-19, please check out my earlier post on the subject. Thank you to all of our healthcare, grocery store, restaurant, and delivery workers out working the front lines. 

Half Past Nine is a modern strategy firm focused on technology and digital marketing. Subscribe to our newsletter for more of this, delivered to your inbox. Reach out to us to learn more about what we can do for your business. 

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