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Kansas Uses Cellphone Location Data Tool to Track COVID-19

A recently launched dashboard is showing users where people are obeying stay-at-home orders or not. The tool uses anonymized cellphone location data to identify where people are congregating during stay-home orders.

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A grocery store marked with tape for social distancing in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Kansas is taking advantage of a recently launched platform that uses cellphone data to track the whereabouts of state residents in the hopes of further containing the coronavirus, officials announced last week.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) is using a "Social Distancing" dashboard recently launched by Unacast, a location data and analytics firm, that uses phone GPS data to illustrate the spread of the virus.

The data, which is anonymized and aggregated, can show at a county level whether residents are basically abiding by local stay-at-home orders or not. The data, which updates on a daily basis, is synthesized from a number of different sources, including public data and data that the company has previously purchased from other vendors, said a company representative. 

The dashboard also rates communities with an A-F rating on how well they are practicing social distancing and staying away from "non-essential" outdoors venues, like stores, hotels and restaurants. 

“We have to uniformly, across the state of Kansas, get serious about this to decrease the amount of travel we’re doing and stay home," said Dr. Lee Norman, the head of KDHE, at a joint press conference with Gov. Laura Kelly Wednesday. "We’re trying very hard to bend this curve, but we can’t do that if Kansans don’t cooperate.”

However, this type of tracking technology — what some might consider "surveillance" technology — has been a controversial topic as governments they seek to implement innovative methods in the fight against the novel coronavirus. 

At the federal level, big tech companies like Google and Facebook are already in talks with the Trump administration around deploying their data powers to help track and fight COVID-19. State and local governments may be exploring options, as well. 

Kristi Zears, communications director for KDHE, clarified in an email to GT that the tool was merely being used to help monitor the spread of the virus.  

Ashley Jones-Wisner, senior director of public affairs with KDHE, similarly said that the platform was merely a means of showing whether people were mostly following the containment orders or not: "There are essential services and actions allowable under the Stay at Home order. The data, as indicated in [Unacast] methodology section, takes that into account but looks for overall reduction," she said. 

Unacast hopes to release a number of other free applications that the public can use as everyone navigates the strange new terrain of the coronavirus. 

Lucas Ropek is a former staff writer for Government Technology.