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August 28, 2020

Getting Creative with COVID-19 Contact Tracing


What do a GIS, a SIEM, and a time and attendance system have in common? If you said they’re all being used to help trace potential COVID-19 infections in American schools and workplaces, then give yourself a gold star.

These applications weren’t designed to with contact tracing in mind, of course. But in lieu of an official government-sanction contact tracing application, employers and schools are finding creative uses for these applications as millions of Americans start to head back to work and school in the weeks to come.

One of those is Prologis, a San Francisco company that builds and leases warehouses around the world. When the pandemic set in earlier this year, Prologis shifted its 1,700 employees to a work-from-home model. But as the virus has eased up in recent weeks, it’s slowly started allowing employees back into company locations, which number more than 100 around the world, at least two weeks after local ordinances permit.

Several months ago, in anticipation of the lockdown ending, the company asked its IT department to come up with a way to do contact tracing. “Some of us were researching how you do this, what it entails,” says Tyler Warren, Prologis’ IT security director.

While there are companies that develop contact tracing applications, Warren didn’t want to invest in something new if he didn’t have to. He wondered if he could use the existing security information and event management (SIEM) software from Exabeam to detect and track the presence of employees in company locations.

Exabeam’s SIEM can be used for contact tracing purposes as employees return to the office (StankevskayaYlya/Shutterstock)

“The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I already have this type of visibility, because of all the logs we’re collecting into Exabeam,” Warren said. “I should be able to show when people are in the office, how long they’re in the office. Are they logging in from our Denver office or are they logging in from home?”

The folks at Exabeam liked the idea, and assisted Warren and his team in developing the reporting templates required to analyze the logs. When the information from the Exabeam contact tracing report matched the employee records provided by Prologis’ HR department, Warren knew the idea would work.

The company can now be fairly certain that, if an employee were to test positive for COVID-19, that it would be able to quickly determine what other Prologis employees or contractors were in the same location in the days leading up to the positive test. This would not only help Prologis comply with local public health requirements, but also assure its employees that it was protecting their health.

“It was great to be able to build this out without the extra spend or a ton of work,” Warren said. “I’ve been in security my entire career. I’m used to protecting people’s data, employee data, and company data. It was really exciting to be able to use security technology to protect employee health.”

Based on the success with Prologis, Exabeam is starting to talk about this new feature with other customers, the company says.

Geo-Fencing Coronavirus

Another big data app that’s being called into COVID-19 contact tracing duty is ArcGIS from Esri. The popular geographic information system (GIS) is used by thousands of companies across the world, including the majority of colleges and universities in the United States, where it’s used to plan the layout of facilities and buildings campuses.

Esri’s ArcGIS could be used to track students upon their return to campus (Image courtesy Esri)

Many planners have utilized the geo-fencing capabilities of ArcGIS to determine how to adapt their facilities for the six-foot social distancing requirement recommended by public health officials. The tool helps determine which hallways and stairwells to convert into one-way passages, as well as to determine the safe occupancy levels of large lecture halls (around 20% of normal capacity for some, unfortunately).

But ArcGIS has a secret weapon: It can also be used as a real-time monitoring system for facilities and people in the real world. That functionality could be used to detect when an individual who’s assigned to work on a high-powered line stops moving for 30 minutes (generating an alert for a manager to check on her). Or it could be used to contact tracing on college campuses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are several ways to do contact tracing on campuses, says Brian Baldwin, an education solutions engineer with Esri, which is based in Redlands, California. First, it can be done manually by using a spreadsheet of students and mapping that into their where their classes are and the routes they take across campus. That’s the simplest approach, but it requires more work.

Contact tracing in ArcGIS can also be automated by hooking the application into a schools’ Active Directory system and tracking the movement of students via mobile applications.

“If they’re using a mobile application, their location can be tracked in real time related to that unique ID of that person,” Baldwin says.

If the school’s mobile app uses Bluetooth, it can automate the detection even more, as other countries have done with their contact tracing apps. GPS is also an option, as is the use of dense WiFi networks, which can be used to ping phones to triangulate an exact location indoors.

Contact tracing apps have not caught on in the U.S. but are popular in other countries (DesignRage/Shutterstock)

A couple of campuses are looking at ArcGIS for contact tracing, but none have yet implemented it, Baldwin says. “It’s going to take time to push them out, to test,” Baldwin said. “The other end of the spectrum, doing contact tracing with spreadsheet–you can start to do those kinds of things within in a day or two.”

Esri is also working with business partners on a way to detect the presence of the coronavirus in college dorm rooms: effluent testing. It sounds gross, but it’s actually highly accurate.

“If you get a sample of effluent from that residence hall, you get early indicators really quickly of if there’s a positive case there,” Baldwin said. “People may not even be showing signs yet, but as soon as they know that residence hall is positive, they can go in and start quarantining  or start testing at the individual level.”

The company is currently working with one company to roll that out.

COVID Clock Out

Time and attendance software has also been enlisted in the battle against COVID-19. Kronos, which today changed its name to UKG (to reflect its merger with Ultimate Software), has seen hundreds of its customers adopt a free reporting tool that it made available several months ago.

Gregg Gordon, the company’s vice president of industry, says the company came to the realization that its software could be used for contact tracing soon after the COVID-19 lockdown began.

UKG (formerly Kronos) adapted its time and attendance software for tracing COVID-19 contacts among employees (Image courtesy UKG)

“We have a number of different ways we can allocate labor as employees are punching in and out or transferring between departments,” Gordon tells Datanami. “After playing around with that a little bit, we realized that the way many customers allocate labor is highly correlated with their geography, to where they’re physically located. We had a little bit of an ‘aha’ moment.”

The reporting template allows managers to look back in time and see what other employees were working and on what days. If a worker tests positive for COVID-19, a manager can run the report to see which other individuals could potentially have become infected with the highly contagious disease.

It’s not designed to replace the contact tracing activity that a public health official would conduct in the event of a COVID-19 infection. But it can give them a head start in determining who could potentially have been infected.

So far, 600 UKG customers around the world have adopted the template. The list includes companies and organizations in healthcare, manufacturing, and retail. “It’s worked out fairly well,” Gordon says.

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