Science & Technology

How South Korea’s meticulous tracking system slowed COVID-19 spread

By Andres Sanchez Braun

Seoul, Apr 17 (efe-epa).- South Korea is meticulously reconstructing and disclosing the routes of infected citizens through a system that compiles a large amount of personal data and is proving key in checking the spread of coronavirus in the country.

Park Ji-woo said she can’t recall when she started receiving the text messages from the government on her phone, which still vibrates every time she receives the alerts as she has been unable to turn off the vibration.

As she checks her phone’s history she confirms that she received the first such text message on Jan. 23 – three days after the first COVID-19 case was detected in South Korea – recommending to wash hands, use a mask, cough in the elbow and call a helpline number in case of fever or respiratory symptoms.

The text messages that followed closely resemble a kind of logbook of the pandemic, and today each South Korean resident keeps on their mobile phone one of these “diaries,” composed of a series of messages, each different from the previous one, depending on where they reside, work or the places they have visited.

These nationwide text alerts, which normally have warnings of pollution or weather conditions, have been critical in stabilizing coronavirus cases in the country – where no lockdown has been imposed and only 20 new cases are being reported daily – especially since they began to inform citizens about the detection of infections in nearby areas.

Park received the first such message on Feb. 27 about a 29-year-old woman, who had visited Seoul’s Mapo district, where she lives, before testing positive, and she was encouraged to check the municipal website for more details.

“Once you check, the website specifies the time and location where she had lunch, the shops she had visited, even the bus she took,” the 26-year-old administrator told EFE.

As the number of cases in South Korea – which currently stand at over 10,600 – kept increasing, Park began receiving more and more alerts on her mobile.

Her phone buzzed all day and she even started getting alerts from Bucheon – where she works -, Gwangmyeon – where her parents live – and Yongsan – where her boyfriend lives – which even went as far as tell her whether the infected person was wearing a mask while taking a taxi or entering a bank.

Behind the scenes, the South Korean authorities were already working at full throttle to meticulously reconstruct the routes of the positive cases in order to detect possible infections and isolate, test and treat them if necessary.

First, an official of the Korean Center for Disease Control and Prevention interviews each infected person to retrace their steps to determine all the people they came into close contact with.

If the infected person has moved out of their home in recent days, an infection route is drawn up from their own account, credit card records and their mobile phone’s GPS location data.

Municipal authorities then receive this route, to which they can add more information by reviewing, for example, closed-circuit cameras on the streets, from which they can tell when the infected person was wearing a mask and when not.

Finally, using the nationwide text-alert system, messages are sent to any phone – the GPS data is used again – that has been in the area where the infected was during those days.

Since Mar. 26, the country has also launched a new unified digital platform that operates on an existing system called the Smart City database, developed by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport.

Lee Ik-jin, director of the ministry’s Urban Economy Division, said at a recent press conference that as the number of coronavirus cases in the country began to rise, it occurred to the government that it could use Big Data, which is used to measure energy consumption, for tracking.

Meanwhile, Park Young-jun, director of epidemic investigation at the center coordinating the government’s response to the epidemic, said that with the older “manual” system it took a day to collect a patient’s infection trail, something that can be done in 10 minutes using the new platform.

The new system connects 26 public and private organizations, including the Korean National Police Agency, the country’s three largest telecommunication companies and South Korean entities that issue cards.

On the issue of privacy, Lee recalled that the system operates under the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act, amended in 2015 when the country was hit by Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) to allow – in the event of an epidemic – the collection of data from sick citizens.

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