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Japan to try GPS phones to prevent pandemics

Softbank participates in a Japanese government-backed experimental project that uses GPS-enabled cell phones to track elementary schoolers' whereabouts for health-monitoring purpose.

Just recently, Softbank Mobile, Japan's biggest cell phone carrier, signed a deal with Aoyama Gakuin University to provide iPhone 3Gs to 1,000 students to keep tabs of their attendance via the phone's Global Positioning System. The company now has a plan to equip the same amount of elementary-school students with GPS phones.

The iPhone 3G is one of the most popular GPS-enabled cell phones. Dong Ngo/CNET

However, the purpose this time is much more serious than nabbing truants. As reported by the Associated Press, this is to test how GPS-enabled cell phones can help track the spreading of an infectious disease and stop it from becoming a pandemic. This is part of the Japanese government's effort to promote Japan's Internet and cellular infrastructure to new users.

This government-backed experiment uses a virtual sickness that is highly contagious. A few months from now, a few students will be chosen to be "infected" with this sickness. Their movements will then be tracked via their cell phones and compared with other students. Stored GPS data can then be used to determine which children have crossed paths with the infected students and are at risk of having contracted the disease.

The families of exposed students will be notified via cell phone messages with instructions on how to get them checked out by doctors. In a real-world outbreak, this could help better control the rate of new infections.

The significance of this level of control is demonstrated via Softbank's calculation: If an infected person spreads the illness to another three people per day, and each newly infected person then makes another three people sick, on the 10th day about 60,000 people would catch the disease. However, if each sick person only infected two people a day, after 10 days, then only about 1,500 people would get sick.

The details of the experiment are still in the works and face a few challenges. GPS devices have been known to not work very well indoors and generally give the pinpoint accuracy of a few yards--not good enough to indicate definite physical contact. It is also still unclear how to determine if a person is infected with the virtual illness, since it has no physical symptoms. Nonetheless, Softback is confident things will work out, at least within the limited scope of the experiment.

Japan is one of the countries in the world with the most advanced mobile phone technology, where cell phones come standard with features like high-speed Internet access, GPS, TV, and even the ability to be used as train passes. It's not new in a country where people take advantage of GPS-enabled cell phones to keep tabs of their loved ones' whereabouts.

However, this kind of project raises privacy issues since now government and companies will have access to private information. This is why one of the goals of this experiment--the first of its kind--is also to find out how participants feel about having their location constantly recorded.