Editor’s note: Can the Internet of Things play a role in the future when we are challenged by the next contagion? WRAL TechWire reached out to Tom Snyder, executive director of NC RIoT, a large and growing users group focusing on research and commercialization surrounding IoT device and application development, for his analysis. He also adds an interesting personal story dating back to SARS.

RALEIGH –  Earlier this week, the first coronavirus case was verified in North Carolina. It is a hot topic, dominating the national news cycle. Is it possible that technology exists today to contain pandemic diseases, prevent their spread, and even predict future outbreaks?

We are members of a modern, global community, which makes the spread of disease trickier than ever. At times we forget just how interconnected we are, or how often we come in contact with people from all over the world. Major events and conferences draw hundreds of thousands of people together, who collectively engage with millions of others in airports, subways and busy cities. 

Photo courtesy of NC RIoT

Tom Snyder

In normal circumstances, these connections are the sparks of creativity and collaboration that ignite our global economy. But now, those opportunities for connection are feared chances for contamination. The benefit of living in a modern, global economy is that the latest technology can be used to help solve this and other issues. 

Internet of Things (IoT) technology is everywhere. Sensors are placed on items we used on a day-to-day basis, gathering data 24/7 with little effort or notice from us. Everything from our wearables to our doorbells, temperature gauges to air quality monitors, all create data sets that paint an accurate picture of our world in real time.

Thanks to these sensors, individual IoT data sets are regularly used to automate simple use cases, like controlling the temperature of our homes. The reality of living in a modern world is that most processes, even complex ones, can be automated. The question is, can looking at multiple data sets, allow society to keep an automated, accurate pulse on the public health and the spread of a disease like COVID-19?


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In late 2003, about six months after the SARS crisis began, I was de-boarding a flight to Hong Kong. Upon arrival, I noticed thermal cameras had been placed at the exit from the jet bridge to determine which, if any, passengers had a fever. If elevated heat was detected, airport staff could immediately separate this passenger from the group and check for any additional symptoms. 

This simple use of technology did not cause any significant change in the travel experience, yet had a massive effect on controlling the spread of disease in one of the most dangerous hotspots for disease—an airport. 

Fifteen years later, with today’s technology, we can do much more.  By connecting that infrared camera to the internet, we can auto-populate fever detection and tracking data to global health systems, giving real-time data to doctors and government officials that are actively managing the pandemic.

On a personal level, we’re beginning to see IoT enter the healthcare space. The ASSIST Center at NC State is researching wearable electronics for persistent, 24/7 health monitoring. This enables orders of magnitude improvement in data collection.  Today, the only time our healthcare data is recorded is each time we visit the doctor’s office – an insufficient number of data points to do statistical and predictive analytics. 

With real-time data that wearables provide, we can alert patients of a health issue immediately and analyze trends to predict when issues are likely to arise, but before they happen.  When data is shared (with appropriate privacy protections) across large populations, monitoring and prediction capabilities become more impactful.

In general, an increased number of data sets and variety of inputs leads to greater understanding of a situation.  Local startup VitalFlo matches weather and air quality data collected from IoT devices to personal health measurement data.  Applying analytics, VitalFlo keeps users informed of how minor, undetectable changes in their environment can lead to asthma attacks or respiratory illness. With early warning, intervention is possible.

These are just a few examples of organizations using the science of IoT to improve health outcomes. Do we have the ability to scale similar technologies to help contain and prevent major global health issues like pandemic outbreaks? The short answer is yes. The questions that arise given that knowledge, however, are nothing to sneeze at. How can and will this technology be utilized? What are the privacy concerns? How should data gathered through connected devices be shared? These questions will continue to be explored, as will the potential opportunities.