As I am preparing for the weekend I tend to plan what fun activities I want to have or what restaurant I will try out this weekend. What fresh fish should I buy? Ah, I need a nice bottle of wine to go with it. While I typically plan out such fun on Friday night using online resources, I end up going shopping on Saturday to my favorite fish store, the local liquor store, and other fun places. Yes, I admit, I am a foodie.
What’s different this weekend? I will stay home! Going to the supermarket I would wonder if there is a person inside that is already infected with the coronavirus. What is the probability that one of the fifty people inside was exposed to someone else who tested positive? Maybe even without knowing. As an engineer I want to know “what is my risk?” Other countries already limit access to supermarkets to four people or even one person at a time. Unimaginable for us in the US right now, but will it get to that point? As a consumer, I am mainly concerned with my own health and the freedom I am used to going to any store, at almost any time of the day and purchasing whatever I need. Then there are the retail workers that might get exposed; and the retail store owners. Many of them will face not just significant revenue losses, but even the risk of losing their business and livelihood. So much at stake! While some stores will stay open, like supermarkets and pharmacies, others could be closed anytime. Retail stores in Italy and Spain face exactly that challenge. As a consequence, workers are losing their jobs, retirees their savings, and so on.
In challenging times like this we all should contribute to solving the problem. It starts with following directions given by the CDC, but also means we should think about how every one of us can bring in his or her expertise and skills. In that sense I am sharing my personal thoughts:
Humankind has made tremendous advances in science and technology over the past years. For myself, I have seen cloud and sensor technologies improve significantly in just the past couple of years. With mobile phones we can use apps that serve a variety of functions. Sensor technologies like Bluetooth and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) can identify themselves wirelessly, without touching a reader. No physical handshake required.
How can we use those technologies to fight this virus? There are some simple measures we as a society can take. Check at each entrance of a store what a person’s health status is. Sounds radical to everyone concerned about HIPAA, but a quick check in a central database that stores coronavirus tests would do us tremendous good. A result of “Yes, this person was last tested x days ago and it was negative” would let you in, and more importantly: it would give you and everyone else in the store a level of confidence to shop with much lower risk. They would not stay home. If the result is “No, this person was last tested y days ago and it was positive”, then that person should not be in a store, rather should be quarantined until the tests are negative. Isn’t that common sense? I also want to keep a record of who is in the store with me at the same time. Why? If one of them (even myself) gets tested positive in the next days or weeks, everyone else who has been in contact should be notified automatically when and where they have been in the vicinity of that person who is positive. A person tested positive would need to use online shopping services until cleared. Again, common sense.
From a technology perspective such an implementation could occur quickly. It’s relatively easy. Putting RFID readers in place at stores (even just one reader per store can do it), connect them to a database in the cloud (software already exists, no new line of code required), and store RFID tag IDs and a consumer’s cell phone number in the database. Give health care administrators a way to record test results. Consumers just need to use existing phone functionality to register and to see verification that they are allowed to enter the store. With the proper, already existing, components such a system can be put in place within a few weeks. We can slow down and manage the pandemic and get our lives back.
While technology offers such solutions do we really want to let authorities track and watch us so closely? Where could this data end up? Governments or private companies might even want to sell our data. What governance structures are required to restrict the use of data to a scope an individual agrees to? These are important questions that need to be addressed.
European countries are closing more and more borders. I never thought this could happen. Spain is closing many stores, I never thought a few days ago that would be possible. The impact on the economy will be enormous, devastating. 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008 might be just a small footnote in history books compared to what we will face soon. People and companies will have to adapt in a way they never had to before. Faster and more radically than we ever envisioned.
This is a natural disaster unfolding in slow motion, over the next months, maybe even year(s). Let’s find solutions to those new challenges, adapt in a way we want to, and gain back control over our lives.