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Wielding a smartphone can help shield you from COVID-19

  Wielding a smartphone can help shield you from COVID-19

Photo: Freepik

Beatriz Gonzlez
A range of mobile apps have been designed to measure social distance, give handwashing reminders, geolocate those infected with the disease and provide medical care for patients

If all goes well, the end of the COVID-19 lockdown could be just weeks away, but the government's decision to gradually lift restrictions will certainly not signify a return to "normalcy". In fact, the authors of a recently published study in Science believe that, beyond maintaining hygiene-related precautions, social distancing measures could extend well into 2022. The silver lining is that our smartphones will help to keep us in check as the struggle continues.

At the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), Antoni Prez Navarro, professor at the Faculty of Computer Science, Multimedia and Telecommunications and associate dean for research at the eLearn Center, is convinced that the coming months will see an upsurge in smartphone use for telemedicine purposes. According to a study posted just days ago on GlobalWebIndex, in countries like the United States and Great Britain, as much as 8% of the population has already made use of services to remotely test for coronavirus. Despite the solid figure in some countries, Prez Navarro believes that the greatest advancements in this area are yet to be seen. He said: "We need mobile phones that can take admissibly accurate measurements of body temperature, for instance, as well as artificial intelligence-based tools that can make appropriate recommendations and warnings based on this information".

For the time being, we can use our smartphones in several ways to protect ourselves from COVID-19. In just a few short weeks, many new apps have popped up to aid in the struggle, Crowdless being one good example. Created by Lanterne with the support of the European Space Agency (ESA), users can check the app before heading outside to avoid crowded supermarkets and pharmacies. With a view to helping us maintain a safe distance from others, Snapchat has partnered up with the World Health Organization (WHO) to launch its new My Social Distance lens, which draws on augmented reality to let us know if we are too close to someone else.

Luis Villarejo, UOC researcher and CEO of Immersium Studio, gave further insight into how the lens works: "By using the mobile phone's camera to identify the user's feet, it calculates the distance recommended by WHO to avoid infections and paints a safety circle on the ground." When the lens detects that someone is invading our safety bubble and thus not respecting the recommended social distance, the green circle turns orange, said Villarejo, who also thought it was important to highlight WHO's involvement.


Telemedicine and apps that remind us to wash our hands

The UOC researcher pointed out that mobile app developers are leveraging augmented reality capabilities to turn our smartphones into veritable shields that help us ward off the coronavirus. A great example is the Vuforia Chalk app, which allows technicians to provide remote assistance to people who need machinery or household appliances fixed, thereby removing the need to make house calls that would expose them, and their customers, to a higher risk of infection. With the app, users are able to speak with a technician who can see the malfunctioning object thanks to the video camera on the user's phone. The technicians can then talk their customers through each step, while making helpful augmented reality-assisted drawings over the video, until the object is up and running like new.

Our mobile phones can even remind us when we have gone too long without washing our hands, a vital measure in curbing infections. Manual Armayones, researcher at the eHealth Center's Behavior Design Lab at the UOC, underlined that frequently washing our hands and keeping them away from our face are two measures that COVID-19 has forced us to take seriously in a very short period of time. "Our challenge is to turn them into regular, everyday habits," he said. According to the researcher, we can achieve this in no time if we remain aware of their vital importance, do them repeatedly, and "congratulate ourselves and celebrate each time so they become second nature more quickly". The calendar app on our smartphones can be used to set handwashing reminders, of course, but some people are going to need an extra push. With them in mind, Samsung has launched a new app called Hand Wash, which alerts users when it is time to wash their hands, based on the frequency they set for themselves. It also has a 20-second timer that helps users to remember to scrub their hands for long enough.

For several weeks now, smartphone users have also been able to download a host of other apps helping to combat the COVID-19 crisis. While some provide helpful medical information about the disease and thus prevent people from making potentially unnecessary visits to the doctor, others facilitate remote follow-ups. A few examples include STOP COVID19 CAT, CoronaMadrid, COVID-19.EUS and CoronaTest Navarra, backed by the respective ministries of health in Catalonia, the Community of Madrid, the Basque Country and Navarre. For their part, Andalusia and the Community of Valencia have posted up-to-date information about COVID-19 on the official health apps already available to their residents before the crisis hit. Meanwhile, other regions such as Castile and Len and Galicia have developed their own self-assessment tests.

When asked about these apps and tests, the director of the eHealth Center, Albert Barber, said that they have the potential to be great tools, as long as they are monitored by public health officials who look after the quality of the information provided and its interoperability between autonomous communities and countries. "Otherwise we are going to be severely handicapped, because this situation calls for a global response. If information is not shared between countries or regions, our chance at devising smart policies will go down the gutter," he warned.


Using Bluetooth to contain the spread of the virus

The urgent circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 crisis propelled developers to create these tools at lightning speed, something that would have been infeasible just a few years back. Antoni Prez Navarro said: "Current development frameworks make completing new projects in a short period of time a reality. What's more, thanks to open data initiatives, the internet is home to a sea of data, which allows apps to collate several sources and corroborate information."

The UOC professor said that he foresees the app world continuing to grow exponentially, but worries that such rapid development will also raise a number of questions. To make his point, he brought up apps that trace people's movements and contact with the virus, saying: "This can be extremely useful at the onset of a pandemic or with low-incidence diseases, but what can they do when it comes to diseases that are expected to hit a high percentage of the population? If we hop on a train full of people, for example, we know full well that we will be in contact with infected individuals."

Even Google and Apple have partnered up to devise a response to the issue. In a joint statement, the two companies explained that they would harness the capabilities of Bluetooth technology "to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus". The contact tracing system will be integrated with both iOS and Android so that mobile devices can be used to trace possible infections. This also incites a few doubts, however.

Albert Barber said: "I believe that Europe has its hands on enough technology to develop this system on its own. I would be wary about trusting private companies that do not operate under European law. It would be a different story if the Google-Apple initiative simply involved developing the technology, which is more than welcome, rather than managing the entire system too."


Photograph of Antoni Prez Navarro

Antoni Prez Navarro

Lecturer in the IT, Multimedia and Telecommunications Department
Deputy Dean of Research for the eLearn Center

Expert in: Physics, physics and science fiction, e-learning, geographic information systems, context-aware recommender systems, and location-based systems.

Knowledge area: Physics, electromagnetism, geographic information systems and indoor positioning.

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Albert Barber

Expert in:

Knowledge area: Physics, electromagnetism, geographic information systems and indoor positioning.

Photograph of Manuel Armayones Ruiz

Manuel Armayones Ruiz

Lecturer in the Psychology and Education Sciences Department
Director of Development fo the eHealth Center Programme Director of the Joint Master's Degree in General Health Psychology (UdG, UOC)

Expert in: E-health; the Internet and health; e-patients; health in the future; the psychological impact of ICT; patient social networks; addiction; the Internet and new technologies; health and robotics; rare diseases and the Internet; online psychological intervention strategies; rare diseases and ICT.

Knowledge area: eHealth, eSalut, health and ICTs.

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Luis Villarejo

Expert in:

Knowledge area: eHealth, eSalut, health and ICTs.