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New Data-Gathering Technology Points to the Future of Contagion Mapping

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California was the first state to shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It also enlisted help from the tech sector, harnessing the computing power of artificial intelligence to help map the spread of the disease, reports Bill Whitaker. His story will be broadcast on the next edition of 60 MINUTES Sunday, April 26 (7:00-8:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.

One of the companies California turned to was a small Canadian start-up called BlueDot that uses anonymized cellphone data to determine if social distancing is working. Comparing location data from cell phone users over a recent 24-hour period to a week earlier in Los Angeles, BlueDot’s algorithm maps where people are still gathering. It could be a hospital, or it could be problem. “We can see on a moment-by-moment basis if necessary, where or not our stay-at-home orders were working,” says California Governor Gavin Newsom.

The data allows public health officials to predict which hospitals might face the greatest number of patients. “We are literally looking into the future and predicting in real time, based on constant update of information where patterns are starting to occur,” Newsom tells Whitaker. “So the gap between the words and people’s actions is often anecdotal. But not with this technology.”

California is just one client of BlueDot. The firm was among the first to warn of the outbreak in Wuhan on Dec. 31, 2019. Public health officials in 12 countries, airlines and hospitals were alerted to the potential danger of the virus by BlueDot.

BlueDot also uses anonymized global air ticket data to predict how an outbreak of infectious disease might spread. BlueDot founder Dr. Kamran Khan tells Whitaker, “We can analyze and visualize all this information across the globe in just a few seconds.” The computing power of artificial intelligence lets BlueDot sort through billions of pieces of raw data, offering the critical speed needed to map a pandemic. “Our surveillance system that picked up the outbreak of Wuhan automatically talks to the system that is looking at how travelers might go to various airports around Wuhan,” says Dr. Khan.

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Press Contact:

Kevin Tedesco