The Proximity Problem: Is real time tracking of the coronavirus the best thing for customers?

Our research shows that the most pressing concern on the minds of US consumers is proximity. Of those who stated that they wished they had more information (50% of our sample), more than half were interested in the spread of the virus. US respondents want to know how to avoid COVID-19. But is real time GPS tracking in everyone’s best interests?

Felix Koch

Regional CEO EMEA & APAC

Whilst general awareness around the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak is high, C Space results from survey data collected on 3/8 show that just 36.5% of American consumers feel fully informed.

What do people feel like they’re missing?

The obvious topics come up… 10% of respondents wish they had more information on the symptoms; 6% want more information on diagnosis; 23% are looking for information on treatment.

More importantly right now, our data shows that the most pressing concern on the minds of US consumers is proximity. Of those who stated that they wished they had more information (50% of our sample), more than half were interested in the spread of the virus. US respondents want to know how to avoid COVID-19.

It makes sense – and it’s based on a fair assumption: the further you are from an outbreak, the less likely you are to catch the virus. If you live in Westchester County (NY); King County (Wash.), or Santa Clara (Calif.), there’s a more present and immediate risk vs those living in Wisconsin, Missouri, or Vermont.

I wish I had a better way to know who has coronavirus” says Dan, a 27 year-old male in Massachusetts – where there are 24 confirmed cases.

Other respondents go further.

One 44 year-old woman, living in California – where there are 104 recorded cases, tells us: “It would be nice to know which local areas to avoid, in real time…”.

Juliette, a 33 year-old woman from Illinois say that she wants to know the “exact amount of infected [patients] and the exact areas [they are located]”.

There’s a market demand for this kind of real-time information.

Governments and tech companies, among others, have the capability of documenting and recording the GPS data (along with credit card spend and surveillance footage). But having a capability and delivering against a known need don’t always result in a good outcome.

What people ask for, what they want – and what they get, what that means (for the individuals and for society at large) – are often at different ends of the same spectrum.

Just because we can, does that mean that we should?

In 2015, the South Korean government came under criticism for withholding information during the MERS-CoV outbreak – including information about where patients had been. Laws were amended to empower government health investigators – and anonymized patient data became more freely available.

Fast forward to March 2020. Until very recently, South Korea had the second highest recorded number of COVID-19 outbreaks (currently tracking at 9,172 cases – third behind China and Italy).

Officials from the Korea Centers for Disease Control Prevention told the BBC that they’re using a variety of techniques to trace patients’ movements. First, they interview the patient, to gather information. Then, they turn to data. In an attempt to fill in gaps and verify details, the Korean government are using GPS data, surveillance camera footage, and credit card transactions to recreate routines. It’s highly accurate.

In South Korea, members of the general population can visit official government websites and find out the gender, age range and case numbers of patients. And they can find out the exact locations where the patient has been – down to the names the shops and restaurants they have visited.

This information isn’t just available online. In a bid to increase transparency, it’s broadcast via Emergency SMS messages to the general population. South Korean’s get real time updates on the number of cases – and a breakdown of the exact places and spaces those infected with the virus have been (stopping short of revealing patient names and home addresses).

A woman in her 60s has just tested positive,” reads a typical message, “click the link for the places she visited before she was hospitalized…” Clicking the link takes readers to the website of a government district office – that lists the information about each diagnosis.

Given the information is publicly available, it hasn’t taken long for app developers to produce and launch a range of unofficial mobile services.

Corona 100m – an Android app that sends you a push notification if you’re within 100m of any location where a diagnosed patient has visited – has been downloaded over 1m times, since it was launched on February 11. At one point, more than 20,000 new users were downloading the app, every hour.

Along with locations, Corona 100m allows Korean’s to see the date a patient was confirmed to have the disease, along with that patient’s nationality, gender and age. It also reveals proximity to patients – in real time.

There’s no questioning that in South Korea, the general population have access to the kinds of data that US consumers in our study seem to be asking for. But is the access to this kind of information good? Does it help?

The answers coming out of Korea suggest not.

The text messages (whilst intended as a public health service) are seen as excessive. It’s been widely reported this week that the messages are fueling social stigma, and this public release of data is discouraging people from leaving their homes – regardless of whether they’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19, or not.

The fears around this stigmatization through the use of transparent data, have exceeded fears around the COVID-19 virus itself.

A team at Seoul National University’s Graduate School of Public Health asked 1,000 Korean’s what scares them the most: (a) potential carriers of the virus; (b) criticisms and further damage they might suffer from being infected; (c) that they might already have the virus but not be showing symptoms.

The team found that criticisms and further damage were more feared than having the virus.

Even if patients are not identified outright, they’re still facing judgement and ridicule online.

One 43 year-old male patient was recorded as having attended a ‘sexual harassment class’ – where he contracted the virus from the instructor. Other patients have been accused of having extra-marital relationships, and some online observers are commenting that they had no idea that so many Korean’s head to by-the-hour love motels.

Of course, this data transparency isn’t just affecting individuals.

Businesses listed as having hosted an infected patient are also losing customers – even after they’ve been disinfected. Restaurateurs of affected premises are worrying whether the virus might put them out of business altogether.

As one restaurant owner in Seoul told The Guardian: “I thought I only had to protect my health, but now I think there are other things, more scary than the coronavirus.

What can we expect in the United States?

Notably privacy laws in the United States are different to those in South Korea (let’s not forget, Korea changed their laws as a direct result of consumer feedback in 2015). What’s possible in Korea isn’t entirely possible in America.

But companies still need a response…

Last week, CNBC reported that Apple is cracking down on apps related to the COVID-19 outbreak.

App developers on the Apple platform are reportedly being told that “apps with information about current medical information need to be submitted through a recognized institution.”

Even where and when information is repurposed from an official source (like the World Health Organization), apps on the Apple platform still need to be published through official service providers and recognized bodies.

Searching Google’s app store for “COVID-19” in North America, returns no results.

Despite market / consumer desire and demand, we think this is a good thing. What consumers say they want and what they need are often quite different things – and the implications of this demand could be significantly more far reaching than any of us could imagine.

Names and identities in this article have been changed – to protect the anonymity of our respondents.

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