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A man wearing a protective face mask passes by the railway station at Alexanderplatz in Berlin, Germany, on April 3. The German government and local authorities are increasing measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Photo: EPA-EFE

Germany turns to fitness-tracking app to help monitor coronavirus infections nationwide

  • The initiative echoes efforts in mainland China, where various AI applications are used to help contain the pandemic
  • Germany is among the five countries with the highest number of coronavirus cases worldwide, which include the United States, Spain, Italy and France

Health authorities in Germany have turned to a new fitness-tracking app to help gather more data nationwide, as government efforts intensify to monitor the spread of the coronavirus.

The Robert Koch Institute, the federal agency responsible for disease control and prevention, teamed up with healthtech start-up Thryve to develop the app called Corona-Datenspende, which translates to corona data donation.

The app works with a range of smartwatches and fitness wristbands from companies like Apple, Fitbit and Garmin. User information collected by the app includes various automatic or manually recorded activities like walking, exercise and rest; blood pressure, heart rate and temperature; and socio-demographic data such as age, gender and weight.

“Digital applications can usefully supplement the previous measures to contain Covid-19,” said Robert Koch Institute president Lothar Wieler in a statement at the launch of the app on Tuesday.

At a press conference on the same day, Wieler said: “If the sample is big enough to capture enough symptomatic patients, that would help us to draw conclusions on how infections are spreading and whether containment measures are working.”

How China has turned to tech like never before to combat the coronavirus

The German initiative echoes efforts in mainland China, where there has been a surge in the use of artificial intelligence (AI) applications to help contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Those include robotic cleaners spraying disinfectant at segregated wards, apps that can track people’s travel history, AI voice assistants calling people to give advice on home quarantine, and smart glasses worn by security personnel to check the temperature of several hundred people within two minutes.
The Chinese government and internet companies have also rolled out colour-coded QR system, infection maps and a “ close contact detection” app that help track the spread of the coronavirus.

Germany’s corona data donation app is designed with algorithms to identify various symptoms in user data, which are linked, among other things, to a coronavirus infection. The results are prepared geographically based on scientific methods, according to the Robert Koch Institute, which is under the Federal Ministry of Health.

“Data from worn sensors and smartphones will help us predict the spread and containment of Covid-19,” said Oliver Amft, the founding director of the Chair of Digital Health at the Friedrich Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg, in a statement at the launch of the corona data donation app. “Indicators of virus infection from sensor data are more reliable than manually entering symptoms of the disease into the smartphone.”

Germany is among the five countries with the highest number of coronavirus cases worldwide , which include the United States, Spain, Italy and France.

Dirk Brockmann, project leader of the new data-gathering app, said he hoped more than 100,000 people would sign up. More than 50,000 users so far have downloaded the app and given their consent to scientific data analysis, according to the corona data donation website.

While privacy remains a concern in data-gathering apps, the coronavirus pandemic has thrust more tech companies to pursue information that can help contain the disease.

On Monday, Facebook said it has been offering user location data to researchers and non-profit organisations so they could better understand how population dynamics influence the spread of disease. Finnish wearable start-up Oura is working with the University of California, San Francisco to help researchers collect physiological data to help build an algorithm to identify patterns of onset, progression and recovery of Covid-19.

“We urge technology companies to work with researchers and governments to find ways to share their data rapidly in a legal, proportionate, ethical and privacy-preserving manner,” wrote British chemist Rachel McKendry, who co-authored with a group of European scientists a recent article in Nature, about sharing mobile and social-media data to curb the spread of Covid-19.

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