Until a Covid-19 vaccine is widely available, getting back to work means closely watching for outbreaks and quickly containing them when they occur. While the prospects for accomplishing this with contact tracing seem daunting, monitoring contacts between employees within large companies may now be much easier than ever using an exciting new software technology.
Mobile contact tracing apps have been widely publicised. They automatically log the places people have been and determine possible contacts based on proximity. Unfortunately, these apps are complex, and they raise concerns around accuracy and privacy. Moreover, experts in epidemiology say that humans need to be in the loop for contact tracing to be effective. However, because companies differ from the general population by having established working relationships and protocols, they can consider using a simpler approach.
What if all employees within a company could easily log in-person contacts with work colleagues when they occur? As they record these contacts, cloud-based software could build a web of connections, often linking strangers through intermediaries. Later, when employees test positive, they could notify this software. It could then follow the chain of contacts and anonymously alert via text message or email everyone who recently came into contact and should be tested or self-isolated.
Consider a company with multiple departments distributed across several locations. As employees get back to work, they typically interact closely with colleagues in the same department. If anyone in the department tests positive for Covid-19, it’s likely that all of these colleagues have been exposed and need to get tested, so these relationships could automatically be tracked by the software.
Employees also occasionally interact with people in other departments, both at the same site and at remote locations. These interactions need to be logged as they occur to contain exposures within the company. In addition, employees could log information about contacts they make while on business travel, such as during airline flights, taxi rides, and meals at restaurants. These external contacts would be immediately alerted of possible exposure, enabling companies to assist their communities in containing the spread of Covid-19.
Many large companies have tens of thousands of employees and need to perform fast, efficient contact tracing. They require both immediate notifications and up-to-the-moment statistics that identify emerging trends, such as hotspots at one of their offices. A software technology called ‘in-memory computing’ makes this possible by tracking each employee’s contacts in real time and alerting all affected employees (and community touchpoints) within seconds when anyone tests positive.
This software runs as a cloud-based service in Microsoft Azure to provide the scalable performance it needs. Each employee can use a mobile app to notify the cloud service of contacts within the company in other departments or with the community during business travel. The mobile app also notifies the cloud service if the employee tests positive for Covid-19. The software can then reach out to all employees and community contacts in the network to alert them of possible exposure.
To track contacts efficiently and enable notifications within seconds, the in-memory computing system uses a new software technology called ‘real-time digital twins’ to keep track of employees. Each twin is a digital model of a single employee which records an employee’s contacts and other key information, such as work location and the number of recent positive exposures. The cloud service can aggregate information about all employees within seconds so that managers can spot emerging Covid-19 hotspots and take immediate action to control an outbreak.
Real-time data aggregation helps managers maximise situational awareness by quickly identifying sites or departments that have many exposed employees. If multiple sites have correlated outbreaks, managers can then identify the source and the interactions that led to transmission across sites. Managers can also track other important indicators, such as the number of employees and sites affected by an outbreak, the average number of intermediate contacts, and the percentage of affected employees who have taken action to isolate themselves.
As companies strive to regain a normal working environment, managers recognise the need to carefully monitor the occurrence of Covid-19 in the workplace and minimise its propagation. Immediately notifying affected employees helps to limit the outbreak. Analysing the sources and evolution of incidents lets managers respond quickly with new policies and strategies. With its ability to track and analyse fast-changing data in real time, new in-memory computing technology using real-time digital twins offers a powerful and flexible tool for contact tracing, helping employees get back to work quickly and safely.
William Bain is the founder and CEO of ScaleOut Software
This article was originally published in the Autumn 2020 issue of The Record. To get future issues delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for a free subscription.