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How wearable trackers help with contact tracing

Leaders at the K-12 and higher-ed levels are grappling with how to safely bring students back to campus—and wearable trackers may help
By Bill Steinike, VP of Strategic Business Development, Laird Connectivity
November 18th, 2020

Leaders at the K-12 and higher-ed levels are grappling with how to safely bring students back to campus—and wearable trackers may help

As schools, colleges and universities navigate the new school year, teachers and administrators will be serving on the front lines of public health efforts to keep kids and communities safe from COVID-19 outbreaks. To do that, educators will need to do two things that public health officials struggle to do even when working with adults: ensure that social distancing is maintained and conduct effective contact tracing as suspected/confirmed cases arise.

Those tasks are difficult enough with adults but are even more challenging with young people for reasons that everyone who spends time with children knows: kids are always in motion and have a hard time not entering other people’s personal space. In fact, that’s a big part of what makes kids kids: they zoom around like hummingbirds; and while zooming around, they constantly form and re-form groups with other kids, all clumped together. It’s what kids do, and it makes monitoring social distancing and contact tracing without help a lot to ask of teachers, professors, and administrators.

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New wearable technology, however, provides an innovative way for schools, colleges, and universities to augment what the adults are doing to keep people safe. These trackers can play a vital role in both social distancing and contract tracing. Wearable trackers may sound like something out of a dystopian young adult novel, but they are designed to ensure privacy and cannot be used to actively track students. Instead, they focus on measuring the physical distance to other students’ wearables trackers – signaling to let students know when they are forgetting to socially distance.

The wearable trackers also remember which other trackers they have been near over the course of the day, allowing public health officials to quickly conduct contact tracing for students that need to self-quarantine. In this way, wearable trackers are never monitoring or logging location data (which is a major privacy concern), but simply tracking which other trackers they come into contact with and storing that list if schools, colleges, and universities need to determine who has come into contact with a sick student.

Let’s look at social distancing more closely. These types of trackers are discreet and come in several wearable forms, such as a clip, pendant, or wristband. The devices can then sense when they’re in close proximity with another such device/user and alert users either through visual LEDs, beeper, or vibration. The technology is unobtrusive and represents a technological equivalent of the gentle reminder that a teacher or professor would give to students. In this way, wearable trackers can serve as an extension of the hard work teachers, staff, and administrators are doing.

These wearable trackers also play a critical role in augmenting what students and adults are able to jointly do when contact tracing is necessary. Traditional contact tracing would require the students and adults to retrace their steps over the course of 2-3 prior days – remembering everyone they came into contact with. That is very hard to do quickly and accurately, but the wearable trackers remove the chance for human error and provide critical data to ensure successful contact tracking. In order to build a timeline for contact tracing, it’s necessary to log all instances of contact, so that if someone is infected, the people they’ve been exposed to can be notified and checked for illness. This means contact data needs to be logged on the wearable tracker, and then uploaded to the cloud for analysis to help establish linkage and identify people who have come into contact with an infected person.

The challenges of ensuring social distancing and conducting rapid, accurate contact tracing is clearly distinctive in different types of educational settings, but these kinds of wearable trackers can be highly effective in each type of school. Let’s look at large college campuses as an example. These campuses, particularly those where students are living on campus, are very difficult places to ensure social distancing and conduct contact tracing because of close living quarters, congregate dining facilities, and other factors. Campuses function on a schedule of moving between buildings and classes, and often feature open areas of congregation and large indoor study and dining halls. On a campus, it can be practically impossible to fully avoid exposure to others, and because learning and teaching involve person-to-person interactions by default, the potential for human error and closer-than-intended exposure is high.

To implement this technology in an education setting, students are issued the wearable trackers along with a series of wireless gateways that communicate with the trackers as students move around a school or campus. The gateways would be installed around a school or campus in strategic locations such as common areas where students, faculty, staff, and others normally pass during the day (e.g.: parking areas, residence halls, dining areas, etc.) As users come within range, the gateways collect the tracker data and upload it to the cloud for analysis. Using cellular connectivity also makes setting up the required infrastructure easier, as it eschews the need for additional cables.

One of the keys to this kind of technology is that it is “frictionless,” which means no significant change of behavior is required for the technology to do its job. There’s no required action on the part of students or faculty, other than to wear the tracker. There’s no need to manually upload data, interact with the device, or to do anything else. All of that is automated. The trackers work continuously (powered by a long-lasting battery) and are not vulnerable to user error, such as forgetting to log data or failure to charge the battery.

Maintaining social distancing and performing quick, accurate contact tracing is key to keeping schools open this school year, and wearable technology can play a critical role in keeping students on track with their academic work this school year.

About the Author:

Bill Steinike is Vice President of Strategic Business Development at Laird Connectivity, which provides a full range of antenna solutions and wireless modules that simplify the process of using wireless technology. Bill has more than 25 years of experience in developing and growing new business in the wireless and IoT industry, particularly related to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, 802.15.4, LoRa, and antenna technologies. Bill previously served as President of LS Research until it was acquired by Laird in 2015 to form Laird Connectivity. Bill earned a bachelor’s degree from the Milwaukee School of Engineering and holds an MBA from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.

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