Smartphone apps that are marketed to support contact tracing are one component in stemming the spread of COVID-19. But by relying on a phone’s global positioning system, these apps may also be introducing unintended location errors affected by buildings or landscapes, according to a study by a University of Georgia researcher.
The study, which was published earlier this year in the journal PLOS ONE, was based on research done before the coronavirus pandemic was even a thought. But with little research available on the accuracy of cellphone GPS systems, the study is gaining new traction among developers and testers of contact-tracing apps.
“We found moderate correlations with errors for location points that were near buildings, with both the GPS and the Wi-Fi enabled—it was moderate, but it clearly impacted the accuracy,” said Krista Merry, a research professional at Warnell. “In the end, we found on average it was 7 to 13 meters off—not very big. But in terms of COVID-19 and contact tracing, if you’re using an app that uses GPS to notify people that you’ve come in contact with, there’s error that’s being introduced there.”