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Mobile Operators and Coronavirus: Ideas to Help Slow the Spread

COVID-19 continues to lead global headlines and, the World Health Organisation is calling on countries to adopt “early, aggressive measures which can stop transmission and save lives”.

Whilst it isn’t a new concept, the prospect of using telecoms operators’ network data to help officials map, predict and contain the spread has been mooted in several quarters.

Human mobility is clearly a key factor in how the virus is spread geographically. Given that mobile connectivity is saturated across most parts of the globe, it stands to reason that the ability to track and monitor the flow of people could have an important role to play in being able to contain it.

Tracking Human Traffic

As mobile devices transition between cell towers, the network records events such as calls, SMS and data usage, alongside time and location, in the form of Call Detail Records (CDRs). CDRs are already used at an aggregated and anonymised level by many operators to detect patterns and trends in crowd analytics. Commercial applications have use cases such as transport infrastructure planning.

CDRs could also be used in a similar way to monitor the movement of people. Human movement will directly accelerate the spread of disease, so being able to understand the broad patterns of population movement, coupled with the processing power of modern analytical software, enables data scientists to predict with accuracy where the disease is moving and help inform containment strategies. There are already instances of this, notably from Telefonica who have used CDRs to help, for example, measure the efficiency of government measures during the HN1 flu outbreak in Mexico back in 2009.

However, as yet, there is no organised, centralised way to look at CDRs across multiple CSPs, especially when it comes to cross-border analysis. It will be interesting to see whether there is an appetite for CSPs to collaborate on making this data available for officials, and how this vast amount of data could then be mined by trusted parties in order to drive policy and also tactical “on the ground” decision making.

It would be a difficult project to put together, and the privacy concerns are considerable; there are already stories emerging from South Korea where Health authorities are sending “safety guidance” text messages which details the movements of individuals recently diagnosed with the virus. Whilst texts do not identify patients, they do give gender, age range and names of shops and restaurants they visited. So, any use of CDRs to track where infected people have been, and then trace the people they may have come into contact with, needs to be carefully managed with regard to privacy.

The Role of Digital Communications

Perhaps another way CSPs can help is by increased use of digital omni-channel communications. For people travelling, as well as the usual roaming welcome message, there could be interactive messages via a range of channels that give the latest advice and precautionary guidelines specific to the location. For people returning home, the same could be true. Personalised and contextualised relevant messaging could help individuals and control the spread.

Of course, as many companies are asking staff to work from home at the moment, businesses need to find a way to maintain operations as buildings and people are being quarantined. We are seeing an increase in use of our omni-channel communications platform in Asia as businesses increase their use of digital communications where staff are unable to get to contact centres. In China, where the virus was first reported in December, we have since seen a fivefold increase on the transaction volume of our Customer Communication Services from our customers there.

There are clearly many components to help slow the advance of COVID-19, but the communication industry could have a key part in this. Whether it’s enabling remote working on an unprecedented scale to keep economies running, helping health authorities and governments with access to CDRs or facilitating digital communications to assist in the flow of advice and information, the industry will play an important role in the coming months.

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