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Smartphone GPS accuracy may affect contact tracing

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.”

Learn more on the UGA news site.

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