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How a local start-up used location tracking and geofencing tech developed for retailers to help Hong Kong control the spread of coronavirus

Enoch Yiu enoch.yiu@scmp.com
·3 min read

A local start-up was crucial to Hong Kong's coronavirus response, which has been hailed as "one of the best in the world".

More than 65,000 people returning to the city had to wear electronic wristbands with location tracking and geofencing technology SagaDigits usually deploys in supermarkets to keep track of popular items and to guide shoppers to their favourite products.

The government paid more than HK$$1 million (US$128,993) for the technology, said co-founder Arthur Chan Chi-chuen, a 41-year-old father of two.

"The electronic wristband project is an important breakthrough for our company," he said in an interview. "We have since had more overseas companies and governments talk to us over the past two months, about using our technology for quarantine tracking and other purposes. Some companies have also approached us for potential partnerships," he added.

The company, which has 15 staff members, has developed several apps and technologies over the past four years, and recently raised an undisclosed amount from investors during an initial round of funding.

Its tracking technology was initially designed for retailers. By installing sensors on their shelves, supermarkets and other shops can identify brands that are being picked up more often and can restock accordingly. The technology also helps customers locate the products they want within an outlet.

"SagaDigits wants to promote smart retailing by tracing the movements of goods and people in shops. But when the outbreak began, we thought our location tracking technology could help the government monitor its quarantine regime," Chan said.

The people required to wear the location tracking wristbands activate them using a smartphone app, which then identifies if they have left their home during the quarantine period. Should they cut off the wristband or leave their home before their quarantine ends, an alert will be sent to the authorities. Those caught breaking their confinement face a fine of HK$25,000 (US$3,225) and a maximum prison sentence of six months.

The wristbands have proven to be a success, as the tight tracking of quarantines has helped Hong Kong control the spread of the disease. The pandemic, which as infected 5.7 million and killed more than 355,000 people globally, had caused 1,079 cases and four deaths in Hong Kong, as of Thursday.

In a paper published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal last month, Prof Samuel Yeung-shan Wong, director of the Chinese University of Hong Kong's school of public health and a co-author, said that the world could learn from Hong Kong, whose response to the disease was "one of the best in the world".

He credited Hong Kong's strict approach to quarantining travellers as central to bringing the spread of Covid-19 under control in the city. Hong Kong was the first to use electronic wristbands to monitor quarantines, while other cities and countries mainly used sudden visits or video calls to check on travellers.

And now, as the coronavirus is gradually brought under control, Chan is thinking of the next step forward. "We are talking to hospitals and construction companies about using our technology," he said.

SagaDigits' technology can help a hospital check if any patients have left its premises without leave to do so, and it can also allow visitors to find the wards where their loved ones are being cared for. On construction sites, the technology can be used to locate workers, especially those in dangerous areas.

Privacy can be a big concern when it comes to such technologies, but Chan was quick to allay any fears. "We only track the location of a person and not any other personal information. We take people's privacy very seriously," he said.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2020 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.