To help address the issues surrounding the effectiveness of the country’s contact tracing efforts, the public and private sectors together with the academe launched ‘Project Connect,’ an initiative for the seamless execution of this important pillar in the government’s Covid-19 pandemic response (Test, Trace, Isolate).
Through a virtual ceremony held on May 18, 2020, the Aboitiz Group, premier academic institution Asian Institute of Management-Aboitiz School of Innovation, Technology, and Entrepreneurship (AIM-ASITE), and the local government of Pasig City signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that would put in motion a data science-driven project conceptualized by the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA), to significantly improve contact tracing in the country.
The AIM-ASITE, with its world-class computing facility, research tools, and data science experts, will help develop data analysis techniques for contact tracing.
The Aboitiz Group, a known advocate of innovation, data science and artificial intelligence, supports the initiative through its social development arm Aboitiz Foundation. Aboitiz helped establish ASITE through a $10 million donation to AIM. It offers Master of Data Science (MSDS), the first graduate data science degree program in the country.
“In Aboitiz, everything we do should drive change for a better world and we are a firm believer that data science is a strong foundation that we can rely on as our country continuously fights this pandemic,” Aboitiz Foundation President Maribeth Marasigan stressed.
The Aboitiz Group through its Foundation has also donated PHP2 million to fund the implementation of ‘Project Connect’, which includes pilot testing, SMS blasts, and the development of the Application Programming Interface or API which is essential to increase contact ratio from one (1) infected person is to two to three persons traced (1:2-3) to an ideal of one (1) infected person is to thirty to thirty-seven people traced (1:30-37).
“One life saved by addressing this gap in the pandemic response, is more than enough reason for Aboitiz to be part of this initiative. This remains true to our promise of advancing business and communities,” she added.
The Automatic Contact Tracing Using Short Messaging System (SMS) Project, through the said API, would help seamlessly execute contact tracing as soon as an individual’s Covid-19 test result comes out by automatically linking the contact tracing applications used by various local government units (LGU) to the government’s testing portal.
While the Department of Health data showed that the 7-day moving average for Covid-19 testing reached close to 64,000, the challenge is ensuring immediate testing of those who might have direct contact with individuals who tested positive. This is currently one of the weakest links in the entire Covid-19 response and when addressed would greatly help prevent the dreaded virus’ further transmission.
“Through quick testing and tracing, we can identify, test, and isolate asymptomatic individuals before they go out and infect others in the community. Doing so will dramatically reduce cases, limit the spread of the virus, sustain the reopening of the economy, and allow people to go back to work as soon as possible. The gradual reopening of the economy is key to economic recovery,” said NEDA Undersecretary Mercy Sombilla.
AIM-ASITE Head and Aboitiz Chair in Data Science Christopher Monterola said by connecting DOH’s data to the contact tracing apps used by the LGUs, required isolation time of compromised individuals can be reduced from seven to just four days. “According to simulations done, this acceleration of the contact tracing process can reduce the total number of cases by 50-60% if tracing is implemented with about 75% of the population complying”, Monterola pointed out.
“By connecting the DOH data of infected individuals and the contact tracing data of say Pasig Pass, we can identify the individuals most likely compromised if they are in the same establishment within say 30 mins. We can then prioritize on contact tracing the individuals based on the length of contact, nature/place of contact, susceptibility to become seriously ill (age and gender), and most importantly one’s potential to be a super spreader,” Monterola further explained.
Pasig City, the project implementation pilot site is already maintaining PasigPass, a contact tracing solution specifically made for the city which runs via quick response (QR) code system and is required to be accomplished in establishments and operating offices within Pasig.
Pasig City Mayor Vico Sotto said that while around 2.6 million individuals are already currently on the SafePass app, the city recognizes the need to improve its contact tracing and sees further use of technology and data analytics to better fight Covid-19.
“There are so many data points that we can extract [from the app]. You know the potential for data analytics and analysis is really high but obviously, the LGU of Pasig does not have the capability for a lot of these things; it's new to us as well and we’re trying to figure things out as we go along and we need your help,” the mayor said during the project launch.
“Every time we identify a close contact, every time someone tests positive and prevents him or her from spreading the disease, that’s a win for us. These are little victories that we see on a daily basis,” he stressed, noting that the initial results’ potential from the pilot test of 1,000 people traced through Project Connect is “through the roof.”
Mayor Sotto thanked all the stakeholders involved in the project including the Aboitiz Foundation. “To the Aboitiz Foundation, thank you for your generosity, for your kind hearts, and your willingness to partner with the LGUs like Pasig City. I know it’s not only Pasig that you are partners with but you have done so much for the community, for our nation and I just want to thank you for that,” he added.
Usec. Sombilla said the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) agreed to do the pilot test in the consortium cities including Pasig, Antipolo, Mandaluyong, and Valenzuela. The recommendation to the task force is to scale the initiative nationally as soon as possible.