As we continue to move through the fight against COVID-19, the role location data plays in our lives has come more into focus. For the current crisis, in particular, location data is being used for everything from tracking the spread of the virus to enforcing stay-at-home orders. It’s a critical reminder about the valuable—and sometimes life-saving—role that location data can play in our daily lives. 

With the adoption of mobile devices, and more recently the pervasiveness of Bluetooth and connected devices, location data is expected to continue to broaden in its capability and reach. Even prior to joining in the fight against COVID-19, the ubiquity of personal location data—and how it’s used—has helped save lives across the globe. In fact, we’ve covered the topic before here on the APEX of Innovation, including how location data improves medical services efficiency with better dispatching of first responders to pinpoint the exact location of an emergency. Below we take a closer look, including how location data—thanks to mobile devices, global telecommunications networks, and the increasing use of sensors—is impacting many aspects of our lives, including: 

Contact Tracing

Like social distancing, contact tracing has quickly become part of the new Coronavirus lexicon. Contact tracing prevents the spread of a virus by proactively identifying people at higher risk of getting it, alerting them, and quarantining them if needed. To help in the fight, Apple and Google recently partnered to provide a Bluetooth-based tracing platform that can enable Android and iOS users to opt into a service that helps keep them informed and limit the spread should cases surge in a person’s immediate location. The platform also provides access to an ecosystem of related apps and even connectivity to government health officials for additional information.

Data Sharing and the Public’s Role

In another Coronavirus-related example, Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School recently launched a data-gathering initiative called “COVID Near You”. The online platform collects health-related data, asking visitors simple questions around how they are feeling and if any COVID-19 symptoms exist and then displaying results on a U.S. map to anonymously track cases and identify hotspot locations. Visitors can even enter their zip code to zoom into their local area. You can check out the COVID Near You site here.

The Privacy Debate

As the use of location data has increased, data privacy concerns and discussions have also been on the rise. On the one hand, countries like South Korea, which implemented detailed digital tracking of citizens, were able to successfully control the spread of COVID-19—without imposing strict lockdowns like other parts of the world. On the other hand, many countries around the world are grappling with the balance between protecting civil liberties and protecting people’s lives when using information many citizens may consider private. For example, while France’s government originally dismissed the idea, as the crisis worsened it reconsidered the topic and began development on a digital tracking application. This debate will no doubt continue across the globe.

Whether it’s fighting the spread of pandemics or helping local first responders get to an emergency faster, the many ways location data is being used will no doubt save more lives in the future.