Korea’s rapid innovations in the time of COVID-19

March 23, 2020

The Republic of Korea is well known for its advanced technology and innovations. Since the breakout of COVID-19 in the country on 22 January 2020, the government and the private sector have been introducing various innovative measures for public information disclosure, virus testing, and monitoring of quarantined persons. As the spread of the virus continues to evolve as a global challenge, here are some examples illustrating the early experiences and lessons learned observed thus far in Korea. 

Public information disclosure

Keeping the public fully informed of outbreak updates and infection risks with open and transparent disclosure of real-time information has been a central feature of the government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. Central and local government entities disseminate area-specific information via mobile emergency alerts, apps and websites, not to mention that daily briefings are delivered to citizens through traditional media channels by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).

Making use of Korea’s public warning system based on Cell Broadcasting Service, government authorities send out customized emergency alert messages simultaneously to millions of mobile users at city and district levels. These messages feature status updates on epidemiological survey results, including details of recently confirmed cases, and the time and location of ‘infection points’ these patients have visited. The Ministry of the Interior and Safety (MOIS) administers the public warning system in collaboration with related government agencies like the Korea Meteorological Administration, Korea’s 17 local governments, mobile network providers and cellphone manufacturing companies, to ensure prompt, targeted and field-based solutions.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government similarly developed a dedicated open data website and a matching mobile app to enable residents to access real-time information at the tip of the finger, allowing them to take precautionary measures, and to monitor and report on their conditions in case they develop symptoms. The database shows detailed statistics on the status of COVID-19 cases (e.g. confirmed, suspected, being tested, self-quarantined, under surveillance), and further allows users to search for the nearest testing clinics, protective mask vendors in the vicinity, and ‘clean zones’ - places that have been disinfected following visits by confirmed patients.

Drive-through virus testing

Another notable response to the fight against COVID-19 has been Korea’s drive-through virus testing programme, with approximately 85 such testing stations operating in different parts of the country as of 19 March 2020. Registration, symptom checks, sample collections and payment are all done in a one-stop fashion in under 10 minutes, preventing contacts with other patients and making hospital quarantines unnecessary. The test procedure requires visitors only to roll down their car windows and wait for the results – usually released within three days by SMS - in the safety of their homes. In case additional procedures such as lung x-rays are required, tests are conducted in conjunction with nearby municipal hospitals or public health centers.

Compulsory self-quarantine monitoring application

Symptomatic people waiting to be tested, or those awaiting test results, are placed on a compulsory self-quarantine as per an official order by the health authorities. In urgent response to violations of these orders that resulted in spikes of infections, MOIS developed a mobile app as an enforcement tool to effectively monitor the movement of self-quarantined people. Users must agree to the collection of their personal information and use of GPS information. Police services can be requested if individuals are detected to be leaving their designated quarantine location, or they can even be fined or imprisoned as per the Infection Disease Control and Prevention Act. The app also serves as a channel to report on self-diagnosed symptoms, and provides self-quarantine guidelines and the contact information of the government official in charge of monitoring. 

Private sector responses

The Korean private sector has been a key actor in the fight against COVID-19. Using data provided by the Ministry of Health and KCDC, private companies have developed real-time dashboards and mobile apps to further increase public awareness. For example, Corona NOW provides data visualization of confirmed cases and shows one’s geographic proximity to the cases. Mobile network providers also share mobile data with the government to monitor the movement paths of infected patients as per the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act. An example of private sector efforts, particularly to use mobile big data to prevent global epidemic diseases, is KT’s Global Epidemic Prevention Platform (adopted as Safiri Smart in Kenya) that sends warning messages to people who visit disaster-prone areas, allows the public to make real-time reports to health offices, and enables the government to collect and monitor data on health crises.