A Canadian software startup backed by Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing picked up signs of the Covid-19 outbreak in China before it even had its name. Now it’s using mobile phone data to assist governments in their response to the pandemic.
Toronto-based BlueDot Inc’s platform was among the first to detect an unofficial report in Chinese on Dec 31 about several cases of an unusual pneumonia. That caught the attention of its in-house health experts because of similarities with the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS. Nine days later, the World Health Organisation flagged that China had made "a preliminary determination” of a novel coronavirus.
The Toronto-based company, which uses artificial intelligence to comb tens of thousands of information sources about infectious diseases, then used flight data to identify cities most at risk of contagion.
Its focus has now expanded to dig into location data from mobile phones to help governments. That includes the state of California, where the number of deaths from the virus passed 100; Canada, which is dealing with a fast-rising infection tally but has stopped short of forcing residents to stay in their homes; and soon multiple countries in Asia.
Closely-held BlueDot, which makes money licensing its early-warning disease software, is one of a string of home-grown businesses touted by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in his government’s fight against the outbreak.
The company’s newest product uses geolocation information from about 400 million mobiles worldwide to extract clues on how the disease spreads within a country or if social distancing is working. It taps into officials’ growing appetite around the world to determine the effectiveness of their lockdown orders.
"We knew that a pandemic like this was really not a matter of if, it was just a matter of when,” chief executive officer Kamran Khan, an infectious disease physician who worked through the 2003 SARS outbreak, said in an interview. The insight "can help empower public health officials on the ground to make sure that they are reinforcing their key messaging”.
The company says it’s taking precautions to ensure privacy and will never analyse infected individuals or their contacts. The data that’s collected by a third party is anonymised and results are aggregated at the population level.
As more countries lean on technology to help fight the pandemic, some civil liberties groups have expressed concerns. The US-based non-profit organisation Surveillance Technology Oversight Project flagged the risks of bias, as well as the long-term threat to democracy in the name of public health.
Asked by journalists last week whether he’s considering using telecom companies’ data to make sure people who need to stay confined comply, Trudeau said he’s not.
"I think we recognise that in an emergency situation we need to take certain steps that wouldn’t be taking in non-emergency situations, but as far as I know that is not a situation we’re looking at right now,” he said.
Besides the mobile-focused service, BlueDot offers software that gives clients – including health agencies, hospitals and Air Canada, the nation’s biggest airline – insight on how the spread of a disease may affect them. The company gained attention in 2016, when predicting where the Zika outbreak would spread.
Last year, it received capital from the country’s business development bank as part of a round that brought its total funding to US$9.5mil (RM41.01mil). Li’s Horizons Ventures was an early investor and pitched in last year too.
In Canada, the government is using the full range of offerings, Khan said. The software platforms will help determine how the spread may be occurring from other parts of the world, while work is starting with mobile data to understand social mobility across the country, according to Khan.
"We have built the systems that are capable of supporting countries as they go through their own epidemic wave, from beginning, to middle, to end,” he said. – Bloomberg
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