Contact Tracing: The giant obstacle smack in the middle of the road to COVID-19 recovery.

… But we’ve got to figure out how to do it right.

In recent days, news reports about the coronavirus pandemic have gravitated from a shortage of ventilators and possible overcrowding in the nation’s hospitals to how best to reopen the economy (and society).

The challenge, of course, is how to “reopen” in responsible ways that don’t result in a new flare-up of COVID-19 cases.

Governors, medical professionals and governmental personnel have been cogitating about this issue for a number of weeks now, and it appears that some “baby steps” are starting to be taken in some states, with other jurisdictions to follow in the coming days and weeks.

One of the biggest obstacles in the way of bringing the economy – and life – back to some semblance of “normal” is being able to know who has, or has had, the coronavirus — and beyond that identifying who the people are that each affected person has interfaced with in the previous weeks.

There’s the old-fashioned way of doing contract tracing: undertaking in-depth interviews with patients to learn who they have interfaced with for 15 minutes or longer over a period of 2-3 weeks … and then interviewing those persons plus the people they’ve interfaced with … and so on down the line.

Those suspected of being exposed can then be directed to quarantine themselves for the requisite two-week period so as to arrest the spread of the virus.

This is a hugely costly undertaking.

Moreover, it’s labor-intensive — to the tune that a state like Massachusetts is attempting to hire 1,000 new workers to undertake these duties. And that’s just to get through Phase 1 of the recovery effort.

The other challenge with traditional contact tracing is that the data being collected is based on memory and recollections, which as we all know are prone to fallibility.

In our tech-savvy world, some giants are “on the case” – entities like Google and Apple that have teamed up to use cellphone tracking technology to “keep tabs” on people’s movements and thereby know what people may have been exposed to the COVID-19 virus.

Of course, this solution is also prone to gaps in coverage, as phones aren’t turned “on” at all times, not to mention that significant swaths of the population – particularly the elderly – aren’t using cellphones equipped with the types of location information functionalities that can be tracked.  (Surprisingly perhaps, smartphone penetration worldwide still languishes at only around 45% of cellphone users.)

And then there’s always the issue of “privacy” lurking the background – a factor which can’t be ignored in a world where many people are already suspicious of governments snooping into their private lives.

But there could be other methods to employ by which contact tracing can be made more efficient, and more accurate – and at a more reasonable price tag.

Recently my brother, Nelson Nones, whose company, Geoprise Technologies Corporation, specializes in encrypted data management, outlined just such a practical solution that can accomplish this trio of disparate-yet-important goals.

His article on the topic, titled “Call to Action: Recovering from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” has been published and can be read here.

I find the article as persuasive as it is understandable to a technology layperson like myself. Moreover, it seems as though the solutions proposed could become an essential software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution not just for government agencies but for private business organizations, too.

Action is already happening, but so far, the results have been somewhat mixed despite strong support from governments, private businesses and end-users. Functionalities need to continue to build.

But it looks like we may be on our way … and that’s extremely good news for anyone who has an interest in reopening the economies of the world – and going back to living life the way humans were meant to live it.

The Coronavirus Threat: A view from East Asia.

Regular readers of Nones Notes Blog know that my brother, Nelson Nones, has lived and worked outside the United States for nearly 25 years – much of that time in East Asia. So naturally I was curious about his perspectives on the spread of the Coronavirus from its epicenter in Wuhan, China, what precautions he is taking in the face of the threat, and his perspectives on how the actions of Asian countries affected by the outbreak may be mitigating the potential effects of the virus.

Here is what Nelson wrote to me in response to my query:

The Coronavirus has not affected my business here in Bangkok to date. I did make a trip to Singapore during the last week of January and to Taiwan during the first week of February, after arriving back in Thailand from the U.S. on January 12th.  I haven’t been sick at all – before or since.

However, in an abundance of caution I am keeping myself at home as much as possible, and I have decided not to travel anywhere until the current hullabaloo dies down.

As for the situation here in Thailand, this country is actually the location of the first COVID-19 (Coronavirus) case ever recorded outside Mainland China. This was back on January 13th, just two weeks after China first notified the World Health Organization (WHO) of the new disease, and only two days after China recorded its first COVID-19 death.  

The patient here in Thailand was a Chinese woman who had traveled from Wuhan, the epicenter of the pandemic.

Since then, Thailand has recorded 42 additional cases for a total of 43 patients, of whom only one died (on Sunday March 1st), and 31 have recovered.  This leaves 11 active cases – all considered mild.

The first case of human-to-human virus transmission within Thailand was recorded on January 16th, affecting a taxi driver. Of the 43 cases confirmed so far, 25 affected Chinese citizens; seven affected Thai citizens with travel histories to China, Japan or South Korea; seven affected Thai citizens who work in the tourism or healthcare industries; and the remaining four were other domestic cases (of which only two potentially represent “community spread”).  Thailand’s infection growth factor peaked on January 26th.

Being one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations (especially from China), Thailand has never imposed any travel restrictions, even from China (nor has the U.S. ever imposed any COVID-19 travel restrictions on Thailand), but all arriving international passengers are screened by an initial body temperature check. Those who fail the initial screening are required to disclose their travel histories within the past 14 days, in detail.  If they have travelled to or from any affected areas, and exhibit any COVID-19 symptoms, they are immediately quarantined at a specially-designated hospital for isolation and treatment.

Under the circumstances, and considering its geographic proximity to China as well as the normal volume of Chinese tourist travel, I think Thailand’s containment efforts so far have been successful and offer some lessons for the United States. Containment in India, Indonesia and Bangladesh so far is even more impressive (Indonesia reported its first two cases only on March 2nd).

Displayed below is a listing of South, Southeast and East Asian countries, ranked by population (together with the U.S. for comparison purposes), showing the number of cases and deaths reported so far:

* Excludes Diamond Princess cruise liner cases.

Sources:

Case data are from https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/#countries

Populations are from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_population_(United_Nations)

The countries shaded in green, above, are those which did not require advance visas for Chinese citizens holding ordinary passports, prior to the imposition of temporary COVID-19 travel restrictions. These countries were either visa-free or allowed “visa on arrival.”

The countries in red typeface, above, are those which had imposed temporary COVID-19 travel restrictions as of early February 2020. These include “entry bans on Chinese citizens or recent visitors to China, ceased issuing of visas to Chinese citizens and re-imposed visa requirements on Chinese citizens or countries that have responded with border closures with China.” (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visa_requirements_for_Chinese_citizens for source data.)

It’s quite clear from the data above that, excluding Mainland China itself, there is little or no correlation between the incidence of COVID-19 cases or deaths and the leniency of a country’s previous or current travel restrictions in so far as Mainland Chinese are concerned.

Indeed, all of the four countries having a higher number of cases than Thailand (Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore) required advance visas before the COVID-19 outbreak, and all but one (Hong Kong) had imposed COVID-19 entry bans as of February 2nd

Conversely, apart from Thailand, the countries which did not require advance visas before the COVID-19 outbreak have averaged fewer than one case per country (although all of them except Cambodia and East Timor had imposed temporary COVID-19 travel bans by February 2nd).

The countries shown in bold typeface above are those which are geographically closest to the COVID-19 epicenter. An average of 570 COVID-19 cases have been reported within each of these 10 countries; only Laos has been immune so far. Conversely, an average of 6 COVID-19 cases have been reported within each of the remaining 26 countries (excluding China itself).

From these data, I’ve drawn the following four generalizations:

  • Outside of Mainland China, international travel bans and visa restrictions are not effective tools for controlling the spread of COVID-19 disease within a country.
  • Geographic proximity to Mainland China is well-correlated to the historical spread of COVID-19 disease in South, Southeast and East Asia.
  • Vigilant screening and disposition of suspected cases is vital to containing the spread of COVID-19 disease, as Thailand’s experience demonstrates.
  • Allowing high concentrations of suspected cases to form without treatment, such as Wuhan (China), the Diamond Princess docked at Yokohama (Japan) and Shincheonji church at Daegu (South Korea), is a recipe for disaster.  

Of course, the virus and its spread is an evolving narrative, and Nelson’s observations may soon be overwhelmed by new developments. Still, I was somewhat surprised to read that the situation is not quite as dire as the news reporting here in the U.S. would seem to indicate.

Have you heard from overseas friends or colleagues about how they are responding to the Coronavirus outbreak? Please share their perspectives with other readers here.

Closed-loop manufacturing: Practicality or pipedream?

Some of today’s more “socially aware” companies like to talk about becoming a closed-loop manufacturer. The topic seems particularly prevalent in the electronics industry, where generally higher profit margins may make it easier to actually accomplish such a challenging goal.

The most recent example of this is Apple. One of its key strategic objectives is to bypass the mining industry as much as possible by “mining” instead the innards of its customers’ discarded electronic devices.

Apple does quite a bit of this activity already, as it turns out. In 2018, the company reported that it refurbished nearly 8 million of its devices — thereby helping to divert nearly 50,000 metric tons of electronic waste from landfills.

But now it’s doing even more. Apple has developed a robot that is engineered to disassemble electronics. The robot, dubbed “Daisy,” is able to disassemble 1.2 million devices per year, retrieving 14 types of minerals for reuse. There are now multiple locations in the United States which can receive discarded Apple iPhones for disassembly and closed-loop manufacturing.

Of course, Apple’s lofty objective isn’t without its critics. Some note that Apple eschews the idea of manufacturing devices that can be repaired, rather than merely recycled. Others rebut the idea, noting that advancements in electronics make it unrealistic that the life of any single Apple device would ever extend longer than single-digit years.

Still others doubt that Apple will ever succeed in becoming a true closed-loop manufacturer. Kyle Wiens, who heads up iFixit, a firm that advocates for electronics repair versus replacement, is one such detractor. Says Wiens, “There’s this ego that believes they can get all their minerals back — and it’s not possible.”

What are your thoughts about the potential of closed-loop manufacturing and the Apple experience? Feel free to share your observations with other readers here.

When it comes to smartphone capabilities … buyers want the basics.

With the plethora of smartphone models that seem to be released with ever-increasing frequently these days, one might think that the innovative features being added to the new smartphone models would be in high demand.

After all, the demand for smartphones looks as though it’s unquenchable; quarterly shipments of smartphones numbered some 366 million devices during the 3rd quarter of 2019 alone, according to data compiled by business consulting firm Strategy Analytics.

But the reality appears to be quite different. Recently, technology market research firm Global Web Index studied the popularity of various smartphone features, looking at a large sample of more than 550,000 consumers in the USA and UK.

As it turns out, the most desired smartphone feature is long battery life. And in fact, the top four smartphone features in terms of consumer importance don’t look like anything particularly jazzy:

  • Battery life: ~77% consider it the most desired smartphone feature
  • Storage capability: ~65%
  • Camera picture quality: ~62%
  • Screen resolution: ~48%

At the other end of the scale are four features which aren’t animating the market in any great way:

  • 5G compatibility: ~27%
  • Biometric security features: ~27%
  • Digital wellness features: ~16%
  • Virtual reality capabilities: ~10%

There’s no question that the newest smartphone models can do a lot more than their earlier iterations. But users want them to do the basics — and to do them well. Other capabilities are simply ornaments on the tree.

For more findings from the Global Web Index study, click here.

Amazon is poised to become America’s single biggest retailer, outpacing Walmart.

It’s a measure of how much the American retail landscape has changed in the past decade that Amazon is poised to overtake Walmart as the largest U.S. retailed by 2022.

That prediction comes from a recently published report from market research firm Packaged Facts.

As of today, Packaged Facts estimates that Amazon makes up ~43% of all U.S. e-commerce sales, which is dramatically higher than its ~28% share just four years ago. Continuing its growth trajectory, by 2022 Amazon is expected to make up nearly half of all U.S. e-commerce sales.

That degree of concentration will make it bigger than Walmart — even considering the latter’s huge brick-and-mortar presence which Amazon lacks.

Of course, Walmart continues to possess additional advantages that Amazon cannot match, despite the latter’s acquisition of supermarket chain Whole Foods in 2017. Not only does Walmart have a huge physical footprint in retail, it also offers a wide range of in-store services which entice foot traffic — things like an onsite pharmacy, financial services, and photo processing.

Also working in Walmart’s favor is its dominance in so-called “click-and-collect” shopping orders. According to recent surveys, ~43% of respondents identified Walmart as the pickup location for their last click-and-collect order — three times the share percentage of runner-up Target.

Still, the emergence of Amazon atop the retail industry heap says volumes about the seismic shifts brought about by online retail. The channel hasn’t been around all that long in the grand scheme of things, but its impact has been nothing short of seismic.

How have your shopping habits changed during this time? Do they reflect what has happened in the larger market? Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

A Strong Job Market and the “Gig” Economy

The two don’t go together very well.

It wasn’t so long ago that the so-called “gig” economy was all the rage. In the early 2010s, with a sizable portion of companies being skittish to commit to hiring full-time workers due to fresh memories of the economic downturn, many workers found opportunities to make money through various different gig economy service firms — companies like Uber, Lift, Postmates and others.

What those jobs offered workers were flexible schedules, reasonably decent pay, and the ability to cobble together a livelihood based on holding several such positions (while still being able to hunt around for full-time employment).

For employers, it was the ability to build a workforce for which they didn’t have to cover things like office expenses and various employee benefits — not to mentioning paying for payroll taxes like the employer social security contribution.

In the past few years, the environment has changed dramatically. With national unemployment hovering around 3.5% — and lower still in many larger urban areas — “gig” companies have found it more difficult to find workers.

What’s more, those workers who are hired are churning through the companies more even more quickly than before — many staying with these jobs for just a few months.

Tis is driving up worker recruitment costs to their highest levels ever.

In a May 2019 interview with The Wall Street Journal, Micah Rowland, COO of Fountain, a company that helps gig companies acquire new workers by streamlining the hiring process, puts it this way:

“It [strikes] me that in some of these markets, they’re processing thousands of job applicants every month — and these are not large cities.”

In Rowland’s view, gig companies in some markets may be burning through the entire available labor market of people willing to work in roles of this kind.

It isn’t as though turnover rates aren’t high in other service sectors in the more “traditional” economy. In the fast-food industry, for example, turnover is running as much as 150% annually these days. But in the case of gig employment markets, it’s even higher — sometimes dramatically so.

With the tight labor market showing little sign of loosening anytime soon, it may be that we see some firms looking at “regularizing” employment for at least some of their workers. If it makes economic sense to hire some actual employees in order to curb recruitment costs, some will likely go that route .

There’s another factor at work as well. More of these gig economy workers are becoming more vocal about pushing back on pay and working conditions. Noteworthy examples have been recent protests by rideshare company workers in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco.  Others have done the envelope math and have determined that once driver-owned vehicle costs of gasoline and depreciation are calculated against declining fares that have dropped below $1 per mile in some markets like Los Angeles and Minneapolis-St. Paul, workers’ effective wages are significantly less than even $10 per hour.

Picking up on these worker concerns, a number of activist groups are making gig economy companies like Lyft and Uber into a “cause célèbre” (not in a good way), but loud, polarizing detractors such as these tend to muddy the water rather than bring fresh new insights to the debate.

As well, one wonders if the activism is even needed; I suspect what we’re seeing now is a pendulum swing which happens so often in economics — where an equilibrium is re-established as things come back into balance after going a bit too far in one direction. In the case of the gig economy, the low unemployment rate in many regions of the country appears to be helping that along.

Drones Start Delivering

But will they really deliver the goods?

Drone deliveries just got real. We’ve been reading about them for a good while, along with the occasional news story about a prototype drone model making a product delivery to someone’s doorstep.

But drone deliveries have suddenly taken a major step into the commercial mainstream with the announcement that the first home deliveries of packages from Walgreens have started. They’re being handled by Wing, a subsidiary of Alphabet — the parent company of Google.

Wing itself received a special certification from the Federal Aviation Administration recently that allows it to make commercial air deliveries directly to homes in the United States. That’s a first.

In addition to the Walgreens account, Wing is also delivering OTC medication, gifts and other items on behalf of Sugar Magnolia, a Virginia-based retailer.

How do these deliveries work? Customers order products via a special app, and can opt in to receive their items via FedEx Express delivered by drone, which lowers the packages to a designated spot in a yard or driveway.

Wing, Walgreens and Sugar Magnolia aren’t the only people nosing around this method of delivery. Walmart has filed a patent application for a system for retrieving packages delivered by drone, and UPS is also getting into the mix.  The FAA has given approval to UPS’s new Flight Forward subsidiary that will allow it to fly an unlimited number of drones with an unlimited number of remote operations. And right on cue, the first Flight Forward agreement for drone delivery services has just been announced, with CVS pharmacies.

So it’s pretty clear that drones have finally broken through to the point where they can be serioiusly tested for consumer use and acceptance. Next, it will be interesting to gauge consumer reaction.  Will drone deliveries break out into the mainstream, or are they destined to remain more of a curiosity?  Here’s one early read from online business owner Mark Reasbeck:

“[It’s] nice that everybody … has nothing else to do but to order stuff from Walgreens and just sit there and wait for the delivery. What happens if you’re not home?  How much [cost] for that service?  They have to pay for a ‘shopper’ and then all the pilots watching the drone.  This is not needed on so many levels.”

What are your thoughts on this latest transport frontier? Is it a flash in the pan? … or poised for phenomenal success?