Tuesday, October 18, 2011

GPS Evidence: Pandemic prevention-GPS phone and Locational Evidence could Lead the Search for The Index Patient

Imagine a traveler on a busy Chicago train platform collapses. He is taken for medical help, and first responders quickly realize he has fallen ill with a fast moving highly transmissible virus. First and foremost, the first responders must locate both the travelers contacts by establishing his path of travel, and then test and isolate those contacts as soon as possible.

In the past, such a task would have been insurmountable, for certain courses of travel. Investigators would have to rely on questioning the traveler, which might not be possible if symptoms are too far advanced. Imagine our traveler is comatose, has no ID on him (stolen as he was feeling more poorly), and has a "cloned" phone with no personal information, other than the number. However, it does have GPS tracking capability.

Now, however, for certain types of travel, there is a better way. Most of us carry a locational device everywhere we go. Our cell phone. Using either GPS data or cell transmission triangulation technology, investigators can backtrack tower by tower, or using a GPS track, to determine where a traveler was at a certain time. Compared with possible modes of travel (train, car, plane) available in an area, investigators can surmise both which train the traveler was on, and when the traveler was on it.

OK, so in a couple of hours investigators know the route. However, how can that help them isolate all the people the traveler had contact with - or help locate where he caught the virus?

Two ways. First, the traveler's cell phone is unique, and will act as a way to pick it out from all other cell phones that passed through those locations. Investigators can follow back in time while that number moved backwards, until it finally stops moving backwards and stays stable for some time. That location, most likely, will be the traveler's "home," or something close enough to it that the traveler stayed there long enough to get more information about the traveler. Second, the traveler's number is surrounded by other numbers-numbers representing people he could have been in contact with, who could be infected, or could have given him the infection without knowing it.

How will investigators be able to get this cell phone information? Its private, right? Yes, it is, by Federal Law. However, under the right health crisis, hopefully the investigators can get a quick court order to disclose the information, if they can show how it will help them stop the virus spreading. The Constitution should not be a suicide pact (paraphrasing Justice Jackson in Terminiello v. City of Chicago, 337 U.S. 1 (1949)). With access to numbers of those likely to be close to the traveler, investigators can then broadcast to those phone, and those phones only, pictures of the traveler, contact numbers if the phone owners have specific symptoms, and precautions to take to prevent disease spread. Investigators can also physically locate the current realtime location those who were close to determine who, and when, was likely the source of the traveler's infection, and, if necessary, find and quarantine them. As positive cases are discovered, the whole process starts over again, with each case, until all are "run to ground."

Investigators will be able, with such a system, to determine that a flock of numbers were headed 60 miles an hour down a rail track right where a specific train would have been running, and infer those "numbers" belonged to people on the train. Of course, since people board and exit a train, all those boarding and exiting would also have to be tracked.

At some point, investigators will find someone infected before the traveler, and this person will have to be backtracked, by cell phone, if necessary, until they come to the index case, patient zero. At this point, they should have a handle on the means of transmission and source, necessary to prevent further outbreak.

While conventional methods may work to quell an outbreak, a targeted cell phone, locational based and GPS directed investigation will take hours or days less, and save more lives in the outcome.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

GPS evidence: A Solution for real Food Safety?

Since the days of Theodore Roosevelt, over 100 years ago, this country has had one of the safest food distribution systems in the world. However, that wonderful record means nothing to the families of the stricken and dead from recent food contamination outbreaks.

Food distribution used to mean shipments within cities, from local farms, or perhaps nearby states. However, with the increase in international trade, food shipments can come from anywhere in the world, and food processors might add ingredients from many food producers. Food is also handled by more middlemen in the journey from origin point to store.

Photo Courtesy of GPSinsight

Therefore, when an outbreak of contamination happens, tracing ingredients and their sources is much harder. Without being able to trace the sources, it becomes difficult to either warn consumers or remove contaminated food. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, Your Food Has Been Touched by Multitudes (http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/your-food-has-been-touched-by-multitudes-08252011.html) Congress passed a new law that gives the FDA sweeping powers to regulate or shut down violators, but did not require food producers to track their ingredients any farther up and down the food chain than one up/ one down. In other words, producers only need to know who they bought from and who they sold to, not the food's whole “history.” Any break in this chain can stop an investigation cold. With business bankruptcies on the rise, those breaks can occur anywhere in the chain.

How could GPS evidence help? Well to coin the old phrase: “We have the technology. . .” to make a safer food system. Let's think how food distribution works: Buyers buy food in easily traceable lots (truckloads, containers, pallets or cases) and either combine them with other ingredients or ship them off in other identifiable lots (canned goods, cases of fruit, pallets of bread, etc. ) to the final seller. Once in stores, food is usually tracked according to bar codes, which helps identify what has been sold.

If sellers were required to attach bar codes to each “lot” they sold, be it a truckload or a case, and associate electronically that barcode with a GPS track of the travel that truck had during delivery, investigations into contaminated food would take minutes, and contaminated food could be identifiable, and removed within hours. Each purchaser would get (and keep) the electronic trackmap back to the source; then add its own GPS information when it shipped to the next purchaser. If many foods were combined, all the constituent tracks would be passed along. The store that finally sells to the consumer would have a pedigree of the food from farm to table, and be able to track all the ingredients to its source.

Does this mean each melon needs a bar code? No, but each case or pallet would. There should be sufficient evidence that could track the food back to its source. What about Mom & Pop direct sellers? Direct sellers would be exempt, because the buyer knows who he or she is buying from- the local source.

Wouldn't this be a burden on buyers and sellers? No, not when you consider that outbreaks in recent history threatened entire industries (think “Roma tomatoes”) and were sometimes in error. The expense is surely worth it compared with the lives of innocent consumers, often the very young, who are most susceptible to being poisoned by contaminated foods. This is also cheaper than having hundreds of investigators trying to track down information that may no longer exist, if it ever existed at all. The recent melon lysteria outbreak put all melons under scrutiny for months when only one farms actually produced the problem melons. Tracking would not only not only halt contaminated food shipments, it would show which producers were clearly not contaminated. While tracking can't replace inspectors, it is cheaper than hiring all the inspectors necessary to ensure total food safety.

Would Theodore Roosevelt endorse such a system? I can only believe he'd have one word for it: “Bully!”