GPS Tracking in the COVID-19 Era

GPS Tracking in the COVID-19 Era

John Nosta 01/07/2021
GPS Tracking in the COVID-19 Era

It's certainly valuable data, but the medicine can be tough to swallow.

Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking performs various functions. Business owners worldwide use GPS asset tracking systems to optimize the deployment of their valuable assets such as vehicles and people. Also, GPS tracking applications provide a variety of data, including real-time asset location (where they are right now), historical data (where the asset has been), and other related information (what the asset has done). GPS tracking applications provide a variety of data, including real-time asset location (where they are right now), historical data (where the asset has been), and other related information (what the asset has done). These applications often have analytical components that present evaluated data, such as a Driver Scorecard, which can help the business owner take actions to further optimize their assets.

GPS technology is easily transferred to the health care arena, where researchers can record real-time information and history and couple that information with other existing clinical data. There are wearables that provide heart rate, respiration, steps, and GPS location. There are other GPS trackers worn by the elderly or disabled to provide information to caregivers about their daily activities. There are even wearables that can translate and track gestures to recognize key tasks, such as smoking and eating. 

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, technological surveillance may play an important (current and future) role for monitoring social engagement and distancing. Simple GPS tracking applications could be downloaded onto phones, and local authorities could evaluate data to verify that residents are going only to essential businesses and not traveling outside of designated areas. Further, public health officials could use it to enforce the quarantines of infected individuals or of their contacts.

This idea is playing out domestically and abroad. In the United States, GPS data has been used to show the spread of beachgoers in Fort Lauderdale, FL, during a time when social distancing was strongly recommended, but not enforced. The data showed how far they traveled and possibly spread disease from a single beach in Fort Lauderdale in one week to cities spanning the eastern U.S., including New York, Chicago, New Orleans, and Houston. 

South Korea has also leveraged smartphone and geo-location technology to track symptoms and locations. Further, research from Finland, published in the International Journal of Computer Applications, examined the utilization and impact of GPS tracking in a cohort of elderly citizens. The authors determined that successful use is linked to the ease of use and GPS connectivity. The study participants indicated that they felt an enhanced sense of independence, and it was easier to perform routine daily life with the help of tracking devices. It's interesting to note that in this use-case, individuals felt an increased sense of independence in the context of added personal surveillance. 

However powerful this information may be, the role of ethics in mass surveillance dominates the discussion. These discussions are being held at the highest levels, including at Google, Facebook, the White House, and even the family dinner table. The ethics surrounding the use of GPS technology were discussed in a paper published in the Journal of Global Health in 2019. The authors reviewed a case study of mothers seeking care for their children under 5 years of age and raised concerns about data privacy and the fact that the GPS device could be turned off, or given to someone else, which would distort data. The authors included a powerful duality that defines this concept in society today.

GPS-based movement tracking presents a classic example of the ‘double-edged sword’ with respect to its use in health research, given that the detailed information it can reveal is the source of both its value for research and the ethical concerns it presents.

It’s easy to see the value of GPS tracking applications in a pandemic in both business and health care. Perhaps it's just as easy to see the concerns that many people have raised about the surveillance itself and the exploitation that may occur in times of social crisis, such as COVID-19. Some recent and practical applications have shown that these concerns, while significant, are resolved in a way that's more practical than philosophical.

Kathleen Zemlachenko, VP Marketing for Guardian Tracking Systems, has extensive experience in the deployment of GPS-based tracking and data analytics. As an advocate for this technology, her insights clearly establish the precarious nature upon which success can be built:

Our experience is that function evolves when fear is allayed. From the business owner to the clinician, good data drives better decisions. Winning confidence by establishing successes and advantages have made tracking less an option but more of an essential tool embraced by all stakeholders. It's that confidence and trust that is the lynchpin of our success. 

Today, we live at a technological inflection point. Or, as some may say, a technological tipping point. The social imperative of COVID-19 viral mitigation and containment has changed the intellectual and social landscape, forcing us to consider what may be life or death vs. good or evil. The reality is, as has happened so many times before, change defined as "The Rule Of Punctuated Equilibrium," where innovation is thrust upon us in times of human upheaval. As we flatten the curve, we must keep our minds sharp and apply the power of technology with a human touch.

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John Nosta

Digital Health Expert

John is the #1 global influencer in digital health and generally regarded as one of the top global strategic and creative thinkers in this important and expanding area. He is also one the most popular speakers around the globe presenting his vibrant and insightful perspective on the future of health innovation. His focus is on guiding companies, NGOs, and governments through the dynamics of exponential change in the health / tech marketplaces. He is also a member of the Google Health Advisory Board, pens HEALTH CRITICAL for Forbes--a top global blog on health & technology and THE DIGITAL SELF for Psychology Today—a leading blog focused on the digital transformation of humanity. He is also on the faculty of Exponential Medicine. John has an established reputation as a vocal advocate for strategic thinking and creativity. He has built his career on the “science of advertising,” a process where strategy and creativity work together for superior marketing. He has also been recognized for his ability to translate difficult medical and scientific concepts into material that can be more easily communicated to consumers, clinicians and scientists. Additionally, John has distinguished himself as a scientific thinker. Earlier in his career, John was a research associate at Harvard Medical School and has co-authored several papers with global thought-leaders in the field of cardiovascular physiology with a focus on acute myocardial infarction, ventricular arrhythmias and sudden cardiac death.

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