Leveraging the Digital Tracing Alert in Virus Fight: The Impact of COVID-19 Cell Broadcast on Population Influx Patterns and Prevention

Department of Decision Sciences and Managerial Economics

This study investigates the efficacy of the real-time mobile alert system in controlling instant population movement from infected areas and explores how specific message content moderates the effects of digital tracing alerts (DTAs) on public health and safety during the global outbreak. South Korea is one of the few regions that has capitalized on cell broadcast-based mobile messaging systems for disaster management, providing real-time COVID-19-related information to all citizens in a given district whenever new cases arise. Instantaneously available facts and figures are compiled on the basis of mobile phone location logs, surveillance camera footage, credit card transactions, and other electronic personal data (i.e., public transportation logs). Despite the effectiveness of these innovative DTA technologies in managing the pandemic, privacy concerns aroused in regards to how much of individuals’ private information should be disclosed. With these considerations, we examine the extent to which such real-time instant DTAs that often include people’s private information prevents and helps manage the COVID-19 pandemic. To empirically evaluate the power of DTAs for transmission-related disaster management, we leverage hourly population mobility data on 25 districts and 424 administrative areas in metropolitan Seoul and cell-broadcast grounded messages that were sent in real-time to the public during the pandemic. From January 1, 2020, to January 31, 2021, we constructed 4,029,696 district-hour level balanced panel data. We found that the instant messaging of COVID-19 status information induced movement among 1.88% of the infected district’s floating population to other administrative areas in a given hour and decreased population density by 28.78 individuals per square kilometer. However, the degree to which individuals are affected by real-time DTAs varies in a heterogeneous fashion, and the beneficial effects are diversified depending on the context surrounding message transmission. Interestingly, the advantages weaken under messages that contain the specific resident location of a confirmed case. This result means that the disclosure of specific private information (e.g., residence, location) on confirmed patients exerts a limited effect on public safety. To wit, disaster-description texts associated with particular subgroups could reassure and reduce the social alertness of most individuals who did not belong to a segment of interest. Our results provide policymakers and law enforcement with novel insights into whether and how exposing a patient’s detailed personal information or sending texts about a specific sub-group effectively safeguards public health and safety during a pandemic.