Executive Summary

Scaling up is hard. Scaling up in a pandemic while the economy slowly tanks is even harder. We propose that the Government partner the private sector by allowing private companies to share data with them for contact tracing. The benefits are 1) Rapid scale up of contract tracing systems and 2) thereby reopening a large portion of the economy at a faster rate. In practice this would mean the Government has to define what data to collect (verified mobile numbers, email addresses, etc) and develop APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) to collect contact tracing data.

Private sector players operating booking, reservations and virtual queuing systems could easily integrate contact tracing into their network of customers (businesses) and pass the necessary data onto the Government. In addition, their system could increase social distancing by eliminating queues in front of establishments.

Introduction

Without a vaccine, social distancing and quarantining are the only ways to minimise the spread of COVID 19 in an effective manner. A key pillar of this strategy is an extremely extensive yet fine grain contact tracing program that can quickly find the people in close proximity to the infected and test them. The operative keywords are extremely extensive and fine grain.

In the context of F&B as an example, this would mean having each and every stall and restaurant report the people entering the premises and where they sit. The obvious solution is to use SafeEntry to log all people who enter. This is certainly a step in the right direction but more can be gained by working with the private sector to enrich the data that is obtained. For example, the reservation system used by restaurants often collects seating arrangements of parties. This could rapidly trace people in an infection cluster like the one in this article where COVID 19 spread across neighbouring tables.

Implementing Public/private Partnerships

Creating an API (application programming interface) integration with SafeEntry allows private sector companies to share data with the Government for contract tracing purposes speedly and at scale. Going back to F&B as an example, a virtual queuing system could easily collect the necessary contact tracing data and share it with the Government.

This has a number of advantages

  1. The Government could easily request additional data from the company if the request is warranted. In the case of a cluster at a restaurant, all patrons and the tables they sat at could be shared.
  2. The Government could rapidly scale out the use of SafeEntry by tapping into the network of businesses that the private sector companies already partner with.
  3. The Government would not have to deal with customer support surrounding the implementation of SafeEntry. A small fraction of the millions of SMEs having troubles with SafeEntry would translate into a substantial number of requests for help.
  4. For businesses this would represent a much smaller disruption to their operations since the original tech solution is already a part of their workflow and SafeEntry is just an add on. Imagine a restaurant having to check a queue ticket and enforce SafeEntry registration vs. just doing SafeEntry registration as part of the queuing process.
  5. Businesses could reduce the operational personpower required for crowd management, potentially to a single greeter at the entrance. This could further reduce the potential spread via the queuing workflow.
  6. The customer would have a much better experience by having to go through a single registration process rather than 2 separate ones.
  7. Finally, allowing contact tracing systems like these to keep businesses safely open would be a huge boost to the economy.

Social Distancing

The private sector already has systems in place to manage the influx of customers. Booking and virtual queuing systems could easily be used to manage the density of people within establishments without them having to physically queue up outside; thus creating a bottleneck that could result in an infection cluster. Both private sector systems as well as public sector contract tracing (SafeEntry) systems could exist in parallel but integrating them together or even just connecting the data in some way would vastly increase its usefulness in containing this pandemic.

Disadvantages

There are unfortunately downsides to such a partnership between the private and public. The elephant in the room being the loss of privacy such a massive aggregation of data would entail. To some extent these issues can be mitigated by limiting the kinds of data collected to information already collected by the company, e.g. verified phone numbers or emails vs. NRIC numbers and making sure proper consent is obtained before collecting the data. By and large though the contact tracing use case would require individually identifiable information in order to fuse the datasets across companies. In addition, having them all in a single database system may prove to be a security risk as a single point of failure.

AI Ethics Lens

To help clarify the ethics around data sharing for contact tracing, we can turn to PDPC’s (Personal Data Protection Commission) Model AI Governance Framework which has a list of AI ethical principles (Annex A) for some guidance.

We see that the principals 6) Human Centricity and Well-being, 9) Progressiveness and 11) Robustness and Security apply in this situation. On the positive side, the decrease in infection would increase Human Centricity and Well-being and the steady reopening of the economy would increase Progressiveness. Conversely the loss of privacy would decrease Human Centricity and Well-being and the aggregation of so much movement data is a threat to Robustness and Security.

Overall this author would pursue data sharing with the caveat that once the threat of COVID 19 is eliminated, data sharing should stop as soon as possible. This termination criteria should be laid out explicitly at the start of the program.

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