The government has initiated a process to draw a digital map to track coronavirus cases and find out areas susceptible to contamination by using mobile users' information -- a move that may help portray the real picture of a possible outbreak.
Under a self-reporting method, mobile users will get a short message (SMS) from their operators and in reply they will share some of their health information.
All the 16.62 crore mobile phone users in the country will start getting SMS from this morning and they will be asked to make a call to *3332# free of charge.
During the 90-second call in the form of interactive voice response (IVR), users will reply to five questions about: their age; whether they have breathing problems; if they have fever or cough; whether they have come in contact with someone who returned from abroad recently; and if they have come close to any coronavirus-infected people.
The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission yesterday directed the mobile operators to start sending the SMS to all users.
The operators will share the data with a national monitoring centre and the Access to Information (a2i) project under the ICT Division every six hours and the two will then develop the map.
Users will also have the option to share the information through http://corona.gov.bd/ and some designated mobile applications such as bKash, GP, Robi, Banglalink and Uber.
"We are now in a testing phase and are closely working with the mobile operators, especially Robi," said Anir Chowdhury, policy advisor of a2i, who is leading the whole process.
Last week Robi demonstrated some ideas about establishing a "mobility tracking system" that will give an idea about the suspected coronavirus-infected areas.
The information collected from the customers will be used for developing the map that will help the government take stock of the overall coronavirus situation, Chowdhury said.
"We have some other plans that will be executed through technology but customers' personal data will not be used by any means. Sharing information will not be made mandatory but we will request the users to help the government in its battle against the coronavirus," he added.
The a2i is generating the ideas under the auspices of the World Health Organisation and some other international agencies.
Under the self-reporting system, callers' information will also be collected through the government's "333 call centre", which receives more than one lakh calls daily.
Some other agencies also handle thousands of calls every day and all the information will be used for analysis that will help the government prepare a roadmap on how to fight the pandemic.
However, officials said the probability of overlapping of data will be zero as a customer's mobile number, location or his/her handset's international mobile equipment identity (IMEI) number will be used for computing all the data.
"With all these initiatives in place, there's a chance that the map will be 95-98 per cent authentic," said a senior official of a mobile phone operator.
Telecom Minister Mustafa Jabbar said they have been working on the issue for the last one week and involving all stakeholders like the a2i, National Telecommunication Monitoring Centre, the health and home ministries and the mobile operators.
"We have the resources and technological advancement. We can also use technologies like big data analytics and artificial intelligence to contain the outbreak."
South Korea witnessed a huge success using big data and AI, while the other countries are also going for these technologies to combat coronavirus, the minister said, adding that the Bangladesh government will tread the same path.
A senior official of another mobile operator said they have the ability to give the government an idea of the higher risk zones and share information of the individuals in the risk zones.
"After creating the map we can also provide real-time data to the government if anyone moves out of the risky zone," the official said asking not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.
In the last one week about 1.20 crore mobile users left the capital city for their home in villages or other towns, which pose a huge challenge for the mobile operators as service quality outside of Dhaka is not on the same level.
But the situation is still manageable, he said.