Covid Tracking by Phone?

Graphic of a phone in hand and a network of individuals it can reach...the intention is to depict Covid tracking by phone.
Tracking one and many…

Dear Ms Smartphone: Should I start using my phone as a Covid detective, specifically to do Covid tracking by phone? I am not in a high risk group but I attended a busy outdoor rally the other day where people got close and did not wear face masks. Now  I am sorry that I went and I  worry that I might have exposed myself.  Would using my phone might have helped? Rafael, Stinson Beach

Dear Rafael, It’s a timely question and I hope you stay safe.  There are maps online that show hotspots, but they seem to be out of date and not granular enough to reveal specific, local exposure.  Since the ability to track Covid is baked into our smartphones we all need to learn more about it.

Historially, Covid detectors are  groups of investigators, think of them like census workers, who physically track down people  who are exposed to the virus. According to a local newspaper, the trackers compile a list of infected individuals, and then the people who came within six feet of them for at least ten minutes. Google and Apple can do this tracking for us too…but we don’t yet know if it is accurate. Here’s how….

IT’s ON THE MAP!

Most of us run tracing or tracking apps throughout the day. Think of the GPS (global positioning system) that  enables turn by turn navigation or pickups for the rideshare driver. Bluetooth,  a short-range wireless radio, lets you share pictures and files or wirelessly pair music and calls to another device. The standard range is 30 feet. 

Both GPS and Bluetooth are now employed to detect Covid outbreaks, but Bluetooth is the favored method. An algorithm can ‘explore’ if your phone was in proximity to other phones (i.e. people) that concurrently, or later, developed Covid-symptoms. Without causing a public panic, the intention is that public health officials can contact you and tailor notifications.

If your phone had been Bluetooth enabled  at the event you mentioned, you might have gotten a text or email a few days later. Your risk level would depend upon both the proximity and the duration of your exposure- as well as your overall health. UCSF has announced an GPS based tracing program that has people who test positive for the Corona virus download their location histories so that they can recreate the movement data.

Is it Private and Dependable?

Bluetooth was not developed for contact tracing- and the technology gets easily confused (i.e., unreliable) by the most basic interference from windows, walls, and big open spaces. Thus, it can generate false reports for Covid, and miss the big events. The technology was pulled off the shelf because there  were no other digital tracking systems.  But now,  government agencies, from France to Singapore, have developed national tracking. However, local citizens have shunned them and there is conflict from  both Google and Apple over the  transfer of data from phones to centralized servers. 

My Bluetooth Moment

On my own phone, I  keep Bluetooth disabled, because it drains the battery, and I  don’t want to take calls when I drive. I had a classroom ephipany that made me more mindful. I was leading a class, ‘Smartphone 101’,  in the local public library, when students complained that an  older gentleman was sending personal pictures from his iphone . Both the senders and receivers had a default setting that enabled photos on Bluethooth to be “discoverable.” They didn’t know to turn it off. 

So, with a nod to mindfulness, we all  need to become more informed about the features on our phone- they are tools that can deliver good or evil. Both Google and Apple make it extremely clear that they will not use Bluetooth data to tracking Covid data unless users opt-in. However, newer iPhones  no longer require an extra step to download  a separate app. You can find more information in the links (Google) (Apple) and choose whether  to opt in or out.

Voice Calls on Phone

Talk…talk…talk. ! It feels so wholesome to connect with friends near and far.

An infographic from AT&T called Network Insights. It compares a day in late April, 2020 with average calling and wifi use. The pandemic has surged network use.
More phone traffic during pandemic (2020)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: During the pandemic my phone started to ring more often, and I got nice voice calls from my family on the other coast, from my college roommate, and even from relatives overseas. Now it seems like I am getting less real calls and more fake ones, like robo-calls. I enjoyed catching up with friends on the phone and having long conversations. But, is that over now? Rachel, New York

Dear Rachel: Hopefully people will emerge from the pandemic with a greater appreciation for how to use their phone to renew and sustain relationships. Going forward, you must be willing to initiate those personal calls, as well as receive them. It’s a revival of that old AT&T slogan, “Reach Out and Touch Someone.”

But first, you are spot-on about the frequency of voice calling during the pandemic. 

Network Gains:

 AT&T reports that between mid-March and May 1, wireless calls (for home and business) peaked at 44% above typical levels and Wi-Fi calling more than doubled.  In the same period Verizon experienced about 800 million daily calls, double the number they traditionally handled on Mother’s Day, the busiest calling day of the year. 

The pandemic makes us all more aware that relationships are  fragile and precious. We worry. And, we seek more direct knowledge and experience by checking in with people from other parts of the country. The sound of a familiar voice is comforting and human.

Voice calls can also fill a vital need, someplace between the digital world and the personal one. 

People Gains:

During the pandemic more people are  at home and fewer on- the- road, so, to coin another telco slogan, they ‘Let their Fingers do the Walking.’  Lots of family members share a single slow Internet connection, so voice communications is more dependable. Also, people are tired of being online so much so voice calls provide a break. 

But, now, as things open up- how do you make the phone calls keep happening? It may depend, in part, on your age group.

Ringing forward…

If your friends are Boomers or older, maybe set up a regular time or routine for a call, say at a fixed time each week. But if that doesn’t suit them, text your friends first, and set up a time to talk, maybe the next hour, or the next day. These days people can answer a phone call anywhere (at the beach, in their car, in the bath) so it makes sense to text first, in advance of a voice call.

Second, if you have younger friends, or kids, think of a different strategy. Perhaps when you call, start with Facetime or a similar video program. But then, as the conversation proceeds, ask if you can switch out to voice. That way you stay current with their technology, and they stay current with you. The pandemic has helped younger people become “less allergic” to voice calling, or maybe just more familiar with it.

Whichever method you find for maintaining voice calls, do not get in the habit of placing these from your car. First, these are vital connections so they deserve your time and attention. And, if it’s meaningful, and life is, don’t risk the cognitive distraction. It’s important to preserve the strong relationships we have developed during the pandemic and do so safely.