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Track & Trace: Unpacking It’s Meaning and Future Potential 

Feb 03, 2021

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By: Emil Bunk, Anders Skjøt Kongsbak & Martin Kahl

Part of our Health & Life Science Series

Across the globe, public and private entities alike have gone far and wide to create solutions aimed at businesses to prevent and track transmissions of COVID-19.

This move does not appear entirely unprecedented. After all, in Monstarlab, we have assisted companies in building solutions to help manage the risks of COVID both from a health and operational perspective. In the first half of 2020, we have worked with Gardens by the bay, a tourism company in Singapore, in building a COVID track and trace solution for their guests. As governments continue to impose restrictions on businesses, we believe the individual companies should consider how it can protect their operations and remain viable. With technology maturing, the cost of building a tracking or prevention solution has declined significantly. It is our belief that the individual company should weigh the risks of new restrictions to their operations and consider taking their own precautions.

With this article we aim to provide guidance and a high level taxonomy of COVID solutions. We have seen how terms get used mistakenly in the wrong context, leading to widespread misconceptions and inaccurate decision making. For something as impactful and important as this pandemic we wish to help clear up misinterpretations and guide the thinking around effective COVID solutions.

Tracing vs. Tracking

To illustrate the difference between the two terms, let us use the example of a food delivery service, such as the one we set up in four months with Careem Now – a subsidiary of Uber. What is essential here is how the clientele can “track” and “trace” their meal.

Tracking = real-time insights into the current state of an object

In our example, this would be the current or”live” GPS location of the vehicle delivering the ordered food to you, letting you know where your delivery is at the moment and giving you an idea of when it will arrive at your office or home.

Tracing = retrospective insights into the previous states of an object

In the delivery service example, tracing would mean that you have the ability to track when the order was received, when the food went into preparation, it was finished and packaged, who picked it up for delivery and when, and so forth. A sort of order and delivery history.

Location-Based Tracing

We are all familiar with the paperwork that we had to deal with in the days of reopened restaurants: guests had to enter their personal data in lists – often visible to everyone – so that tracing was possible if a guest was found to be infected. Similarly, other guests who were at the same place at the same time could be contacted by the responsible health department.

Digital solutions that can benefit users, businesses and health authorities alike continue to emerge. One of the best-known examples is the check-in app “Luca”. Here, guests can easily check-in at locations and RSVP to events (including private meetings) with the help of a personal QR code. The transmitted data is then stored anonymously and can – only in case of infection and after release by the operators – be retrieved by health authorities to break infection chains. The Luca app therefore also helps to control the spread of the virus variants. 

Proximity-based tracing

While location-based tracing focuses on where someone has been, proximity-based tracing focuses on who has been in the vicinity. The most prominent example in Germany is certainly the official German Corona-Warn-App, which, according to a Bitkom study, is used by one in three people and, despite the highest possible level of data protection, is still met with concern [1].

The concept is that the smartphone registers nearby devices in the background, using technologies such as Bluetooth.This not only logs who was nearby, but also provides an estimate of how close they were and for how long. Automating this logging on to devices that many people are already carrying around has enormous potential to break the chain of infection in a pandemic.

The potential and importance even led to a collaboration between heavyweights Google and Apple to jointly create a protocol for Bluetooth-based contact tracking across their respective platforms. However, the “Exposure Notification” solution has only been released to governments, public health agencies and NGOs so far.

Apple in particular takes a very restrictive approach to corona tracing apps; asking for detailed information about the purpose of the application based on a questionnaire during the review process. The questions revolve around the areas of required access (GPS, Bluetooth, contacts, etc.), the handling of personal data, authorization by authorities, intended use of the Exposure Notification API, and what should happen with the app after a possible end of the pandemic.

Micro vs. Macro

Macro solutions

The well-known corona apps are made for use on a large, national scale. The potential benefits of these macro solutions, such as reach, database, consistent privacy, and trust, can be critical to the effectiveness of a country’s COVID response. However, problems also arise from the high potential reach. 

The success of these solutions depends on achieving mass adoption. This can be difficult in large populations, as the benefits to individuals become vague and the impacts abstract. Also, solutions must sometimes be designed with the lowest common denominator in mind. For example, older populations often do not have smartphones or download apps themselves. However, it is exactly this group that is at risk. As another example, Singapore was one of the first countries with a Corona app, but tourists were initially excluded by the need for a local cell phone number. That being said, Monstarlab experts on the ground helped add a tracing function to the existing visitor app at the Gardens by the bay tourist attraction. However, in the middle of the approval process, the official, nationwide app trailed this feature and so they decided against integrating the local tracing solution into the Gardens by the Bay platform. 

Obviously, national solutions quickly reach their limits in an international context (such as tourism). According to the EU Commission, however, half of Europe’s official apps are now fully compatible. Only France and Hungary are left out in the long run due to their centralized approach.

Micro solutions

Micro solutions, on the other hand, focus on highly localized use; for instance at workplaces, production sites, retirement homes, restaurants, airports, trains, theme parks, hotels, hospitals and museums. Not only can they be designed and deployed more specifically than macro solutions, but they can also lead to adoption rates approaching 100%. Why? It’s because of the granular control of the environment in which they are deployed, combined with an immediate relationship with the users (e.g. employees or guests). Micro-solutions can thus add significant value to organizations and also become more relevant to users by bundling them with other digital services (such as ticketing or health services).

Just as companies should take hygiene measures, for example, or currently also provide tests and vaccinations, it can therefore make sense for them to think about micro solutions and go beyond the official app, which in case of doubt only works to a very limited extent in the specific context.

Here we see companies face three core issues in their COVID response. They are not fundamentally different from other health and safety issues, but the impact of non-compliance has significantly greater implications.


An effective micro-scale COVID track and trace solution can be an important tool in ensuring the operational and therefore viability of the business during these times. 

Conclusion 

Returning to the beginning of this article and, in conclusion, let’s classify one of the best examples of COVID-addressing solutions in the world – the German Telekom solution in the system – and take a look ahead.

There is no doubt that the German Telekom solution is a micro solution, as its intended use is aimed at individual companies and is marketed as a B2B solution. The announced solution contains both a tracking and a tracing component: The “SafeTag”.

This tracing component is complemented by an app. To enable contact tracing, a QR code on the tracker is scanned with the said smartphone app at the beginning of the shift or event. This pairs the smartphone with the tag. The device automatically unpairs when it is returned to the charging station after work or the event. If a colleague or guest inputs a positive corona result via the app, all at-risk contacts can be alerted via the notification. It is therefore not necessary to carry the smartphone with you during the tracing process, which should increase acceptance of the solution in companies.

What could be future prospects?

Micro vs. macro: While macro solutions will certainly continue to evolve (especially with expansions of features and interoperability), it can be expected that attention will increasingly turn to the new market of micro solutions. 

The often insufficient user acceptance of macro solutions in combination with the limitations of these solutions in specific contexts (e.g. production sites hinder BLE signal or international users) on the one hand, and the possibilities of micro solutions to generate much more relevance of the solution for the individual and thus a significantly higher willingness to use are key reasons for this. That being said, companies will want to fulfill their responsibility more and more to protect their business, their employees and their customers in an intelligent way. Additionally, micro solutions can become an essential element for opening strategies.

Tracking vs. tracing: Digital solutions, to combat a pandemic, must focus on tracing and tracking infection chains. While the tracking of distance rules, for example. can likely prevent infections and is also easier to understand than tracing solutions, it is also likely to lead to further privacy concerns among users due to its real-time nature. Nevertheless, it makes sense to continue tracking, especially in view of the increasing covid cases with virus variants. Both approaches, tracing and tracking, can help combat a pandemic, so their combined use can be a worthwhile consideration.

Whether micro or macro, tracing or tracking, all solutions need to balance user acceptance, privacy, what is technically feasible, the interests of the business/government, and the impact of the solution — all while taking into account local laws and society. And we look forward to helping create that balance.

Endnote:

[1] Bitkom, Schon jeder Dritte nutzt die Corona-Warn-App, 2021

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