”If someone told me two years ago, when we were working on the BBC Pandemic app, that a pandemic would suddenly become a reality, I’d say there’s no way, and well… it’s happened,” says Filip Ljubić, director of the Zagreb software company – Q.
As Filip Pavic/Novac writes on the 29th of March, 2020, not knowing that the world was awaiting the current coronavirus pandemic, this Zagreb software company launched a prophetic mobile app called BBC Pandemic, a virtual simulation of the spread of flu from person to person in 2018, in collaboration with the BBC and Cambridge University. The data it collected, the very first of its kind in the world, is being used today by scientists around the world to control the current coronavirus epidemic and to plan what’s needed in regard to public health.
”The idea was to do the largest experiment in human history and to collect data that scientists hadn’t been able to have before. It all started when we were contacted by the BBC, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of Spanish flu, to create an application for them that a user can download to their mobile device, through which we can monitor how the infection spreads from person to person, all of the ways it does so and at what speed it doesit. We then created the application,” recounts Ljubić, who is one of the founders of Q, a Zagreb software company that has been developing web and software solutions since its inception back in 2013, and has an impressive list of clients, including Facebook, Volkswagen, The Times, Novartis, and more.
The application, he explains, is quite simple and not particularly technically demanding. Everything is anonymous, and the app only asks users for their gender and their age. Users download it to their mobile devices and thus become virtually ”infected”. As they perform their daily tasks, the app monitors their movements and their social contacts. The idea for each person is to collect the correct set of information about their activity, movement, professional status, travel habits and how often they come into contact with other people – 24 hours a day. During the day, they need to answer different questions within the app, such as how many people they were in contact with that day, how long they spent together, whether their train or bus on the way to work was full or empty, and how long that trip took.
”Scientists were looking for 10,000 people to download the app and participate in the experiment because that amount of people was necessary for a credible sample. In the end, almost 100,000 people downloaded the app, much to our surprise. Ten times what we’d hoped. The app has become a huge hit and has for some time been the number one medical app on the UK’s Apple Store and on Google Play,” says Ljubić.
This allowed scientists from the prestigious Cambridge University in the UK and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine to analyse the data for the first time in history and actually produce a credible “contagion map” of the so-called Heat Maps – graphical views of the spread of influenza viruses from one city to another and in towns and counties, and display the exact rate of its spread. The shocking revelations from the BBC app were later packed into the documentary Contagion, currently available on YouTube and Netflix.
Based on the movement of app users and their interactions, it can be seen that in the months since the outbreak, the number of people infected in the UK rose to more than 43 million people, nearly two-thirds of the entire population. The death toll in the first six months rises to nearly one million. One user who carries the virus, as they have shown, by going to a gym, cafe or shop, infects as many as nine people on average, and then they spread the infection exponentially even further. Mathematician Hannah Fry, who led the entire project, said it was “a unique project and a huge leap forward for science, and one day, these discoveries could save millions of lives.”
”It’s almost unbelievable that so soon after the launch of the application, a brand new epidemic, coronavirus, really happened and suddenly what the application simulated in theory began to happen in real life,” says Ljubić.
”Last week, we were contacted again by the BBC and told us they were considering developing a new application that would track people with coronavirus symptoms in real time. We’ve only had a few conversations so far and we’re still waiting for the green light,” Ljubić revealed.