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Tech companies putting a positive spin on data collection in the COVID-19 era

Technology firms are putting a beneficial spin on their collection and processing of data from millions of device users. It’s no longer an invasive way to target ads and sell more products, it’s an innovative way to predict the spread of COVID-19/coronavirus.

Kinsa, the maker of smart thermometers, is a prime example of the shift. The health tech company has placed over a million of their devices around the US. These devices do more than just take temperatures. They record it, time stamp it, and with their handy app – let parents chart the flow of illnesses and the medication given. And yes, the company also records and processes this information.

Map it out and drill into that data

The data collected is a gold mine for Kinsa – and maybe the national health authorities. Annonymized and structured by zip code, Kinsa has structured this data into a national map that contrasts the current user temps with the data collected from the previous year. “While we cannot definitively say this is showing COVID-19, we CAN say that we are seeing unusually rapid spread in illness,” wrote Kinsa CEO Inder Singh on the company website.

For the atypical view, the map contrasts the usual collection of fever data from previous years with the present. When the map goes red, there are more people running a temp than is typical. The map shows an orange spot around the greater New York area – one of the areas within the US hardest hit by COVID-19. Then there is Florida – red. A level higher than the state of Florida official stats of 1,200 confirmed infections as of March 24 would indicate.

If the atypical higher temps recorded by Kinsa are related to COVID symptoms, this is extremely bad news both for Florida’s elderly residents and the hometowns of those college students that have been flooding the Florida beaches. It’s a question that only time will be able to answer — but that Kinsa will definitely publicize if affirmative.

Google is so yesterday for (advertising) data

Charting the spread of illness by collecting millions of user temp readings is a step up from Google Trend’s past tracking of flu-related search terms. Google has showed it was able to uncover public health trends. Now Kinsa can make an even closer connection between individual user data and larger societal events like pandemics.

Kinsa is not just showing off its dashboard/map out of complete altruism. Their data collection is resold to other companies for their marketing needs. Clorox is one such client. They used the data to target ads for its disinfecting wipes. Last year the NYTimes reported that this helped increase consumer interactions with Clorox ads by 22% during the flu season.

Is this just a hot American trend?

For the moment, Kinsa website only shows availability in the United States – and you might just blame it on the data. Kinsa reports that its products are compliant with the American Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (better known as HIPAA), which mandates a greater level of control in the handling and use of patient data than provided by the standard smart device. But, it’s not clear if they meet the GDPR standards in Europe.

As the Kinsa Health map of the USA shows, it’s not really about the product – it’s about the data. And what seemed invasive data collection yesterday seems like a benefit for the common good today. Who knows about tomorrow.


As a PR Consultant and journalist, Frink has covered IT security issues for a number of security software firms, as well as provided reviews and insight on the beer and automotive industries (but usually not at the same time). Otherwise, he’s known for making a great bowl of popcorn and extraordinary messes in a kitchen.