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Contact tracing technology is hottest new thing in HR

As people return to work and campus, there's a growing demand for tools that can quickly find coronavirus risks.

Vendors are rushing workplace coronavirus contact tracing technology to market. There's no one approach, but they tend to rely on wireless networking and existing business databases to quickly alert people of a coronavirus infection risk. 

The workplace tools are a little bit of a backlash to public health efforts that use smartphone-based applications and wireless networks to record an employee's contacts. If an employee reports a coronavirus infection, contact tracing technology helps identify who that person has recently been in contact with. But the smartphone tech has faced criticism because of privacy issues, and it's raised the concern that employees may be wary of installing the software on their personal smartphones. 

Not to worry, the tech vendors said.

Existing building wireless systems, time clocks and analytics can provide an alternative means to create a contact tracing record. Employees will have to implement very little new technology, if any. Wearable tech could also be an option.

But, unlike the smartphone tech, none of the alternatives fully automate contact tracing or create a complete record of an employee's contacts, distance and time spent with someone, which may leave HR to do some legwork. If HR departments are using contact tracing tools without this level of precision, they may have to supplement their contact tracing by checking multiple databases and questioning employees.

Reusing data from timekeeping systems

One contact tracing technology approach from Kronos Inc., utilizes data from its timekeeping systems. As people move about the office, they register timestamps at various locations in the building.

Gregg Gordon, vice president of industry, Kronos Inc.Gregg Gordon

Employers may require this if, for example, an employee moves from the loading dock to work in a different area. "They're actually creating a trail about where they're working," said Gregg Gordon, vice president of industry at the firm, based in Lowell, Mass.

"There's no perfect solution out there," Gordon said. But its customers are already collecting this data, which can be repurposed for contact tracing. Employees often work at the same location and with the same people every day, and this information could supplement manual contact tracing, he said. 

The Kronos data can also be enriched by other data. In manufacturing, for instance, an employee may enter an ID to operate a machine. That information can be cross-referenced with the timestamp data, enabling employers to layer in "different pieces of data to have a more complete picture," Gordon said. 

Another approach is the use of wearables.

Speed saves lives.
Shaun BarryGlobal leader for government, healthcare and utilities, SAS Institute Inc.

Safedome, a Bluetooth tracking developer in Sydney, built a card-to-card product based on Bluetooth low energy system. The cards, called Contact Harald, are similar to a key card an employee might wear on an office campus. 

The cards rely on Bluetooth signals and when an employee gets within six feet of another card wearer for two minutes or more, the contact is recorded on the card, as well as time of day. The data remains on the card for 20 days and isn't used unless there is a need to download it for a contact trace.

Steve Lauder, head of strategy and product, SafedomeSteve Lauder

"There's nothing an employee has to do," said Steve Lauder, head of strategy and product at the firm. "You just simply wear the card."

Contact Harald doesn't use GPS and doesn't record an employee's location. That's something a firm's contact tracers would need to discover by asking the employees.  

"It was a distinctive tradeoff on our part because so many people were concerned about location tracking," Lauder said. 

Indoor intelligence systems

Another contact tracing technology approach uses an existing "indoor intelligence" system. One vendor, Inpixon Inc., in Palo Alto, Calif., produces an indoor positioning location technology that can be used to track assets and people. The company has built a contact tracing-specific application for it.  

Smartphones interact with existing Wi-Fi access points that can be used to triangulate locations, as well as Bluetooth beacons. If employees register their devices and provide consent for the data collection, employers will get the best results.

Nadir Ali, CEO, InpixonNadir Ali

Without technology, "you have to rely on people's memory," said Nadir Ali, Inpixon CEO. That can produce an incomplete picture because people may not realize who they've been in proximity with or even remember who they were in contact with, he said.   

The approach taken by the SAS Institute Inc., an analytics and business intelligence firm in Cary, N.C., is to rely on existing information sources to gather data that can be used for contact tracing. 

Employers can prepopulate databases with information from HR, card swipes into buildings and lunchrooms, who is working on a production line and other sources of data. 

Shaun Barry, global leader for government, healthcare and utilities, SAS InstituteShaun Barry

Once all the data is assembled, "I've got a pretty good picture of who you had interactions with and where you have been in my facility," said Shaun Barry, global leader for government, healthcare and utilities at SAS.

SAS also has a contact tracing product that can be used for any disease that covers the data collection and scores the risks of infection. It will require integration by users. But the upshot of rapid contact tracing is this: "Speed saves lives," Barry said.

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