Andrew Duncan, Director at MetAlert Inc, talks to Johanna Hamilton MBCS about how a simple GPS tracking device slipped into an insole of a vulnerable person is not only changing care requirements, it’s also preserving lives.
The BCS’ mission statement is to make IT good for society. In a way that directly benefits the vulnerable, MetAlert has created a new generation of GPS device hidden in shoe insoles to help track people with Alzheimer’s, dementia and cognitive impairment.
A new generation of assisted living technology
Of course there are many solutions to safeguarding the wellbeing of seniors, including assisted living, intercoms and pull cords to alert remote carers to an emergency. There are also situations where the person no longer understands their situation or their surroundings. The confusion might have a grandmother wandering off to pick her children up from a primary school that shut down 50 years ago. It might mean they confuse family members, don’t know where they live, cross the road oblivious to traffic. As the population ages, families are needing to deal with the balance that keeps their relatives safe and with a degree of independence, but also respects their human rights.
Andrew Duncan begins: ‘Older people go missing all the time. It’s not that they’re lost, it’s that they’re just in another world, one where they’re 20 years old and need to get the train into work. So they will set off to find the train station, but this could be anywhere and at 3am. In the depths of winter, this could be fatal. There have also been cases where children with autism have been attracted by the way the sunlight glints off the ocean and have wandered off, walked into the water and drowned.’ While it is a worry that big brother is always watching, in this case, where ability is impaired, there is a case for added protection.
Research and development spanning 20 years
The company has explored the use of trackers and registered multiple patents over 20 years. The latest incarnation is the GPS SmartSole – a GPS tracking solution that can easily be integrated into the insole of a shoe. It uses cellular networks to send alerts to a mobile app or online portal, enabling the location of the wearer to be traced. Boundaries called ‘geozones’ can be set up to alert the caregiver via email or text alerts if the wearer strays beyond a safe zone – though what a safe zone is, is very much dependent on the person. For one person it could be wandering the wrong way after picking up shopping; for others it could be simply leaving the house.
While many of us can empathise with the wandering grandparent, we are also uncomfortable with tagging our relatives.
Is it ethical to track people?
Andrew believes that in a safeguarding situation, this is preferable to many of the alternatives, including 24 hour secure residential care. The ethos of the company is very much about living life to the full but remaining safe: ‘The only time we’ve really had a problem with balancing MetAlert and concerns about privacy was when introducing the product to Germany. Within living memory we have had the collapse of the Berlin Wall and issues of the Stasi tracking people’s movements in the former East Germany. The country had put laws in place to prohibit the tracking of any adult – children with cognitive issues didn’t have this issue – but for seniors, there had to be permission, but when someone has Alzheimer’s that’s always going to be problematic.’
While Germany has historic privacy concerns, many countries and care providers have embraced the technology. It is now used widely in US nursing homes, the NHS and other national care agencies across Europe, and it is supported by local Alzheimer Associations and multiple police, search and rescue organisations – in over 40 countries.
Andrew continues: ‘If you go to somewhere like Norway, it's been written into law that you have to have GPS based tracking in device purchases for people who are in need. Their local authorities have to supply them. The Netherlands is also experimenting with dementia villages, that are developed specifically with people with Alzheimer’s and dementia in mind. Safe places where people are secure but also feel comfortable in their surroundings.’
A hidden secret, a no brainer in care
Stealth is the key to making this fit into the lives of people with Alzheimer’s, dementia and autism – not hiding the concept of being tracked, but the tracker itself. If you add something unfamiliar to a person’s body – say a bracelet or necklace for tracking or emergencies – their default reaction will be to take it off. In people with dementia, they possibly won’t be able to use the alert and with children with autism, it can be downright distressing to have to wear something that disturbs them.
However, such issues do not exist with the transmitter hidden in the shoe or slipper. A trusted, familiar piece of footwear is slipped on with muscle-memory before the person wanders outside. Over the 20 years the company has been in existence, the technology has become smaller, more lightweight, more resilient, easier to charge. Subsequent iterations and years of research and development have now made the tracker more compact and more powerful.
Simple, scalable, inexpensive
The fact that everyone is different and that the countries use different networks could introduce complexity. However, MetAlert offers a global end-to-end solution of hardware, software and connectivity that users of (almost) all nations can utilise straight from the box. In technical specifications, the systems integrate with consumer products and enterprise applications, making use of the latest in miniaturised, low power consumption GPS, cellular, RF, NFC and BLE technology.
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MetAlert uses Pod Group’s ENO ONE global connectivity solution which covers 600+ networks in 185 countries; every ENO eSIM comes preconfigured, meaning MetAlert no longer has to manually configure each device for a different country. The product uses an eSIM that works on a neutral Remote SIM Provisioning (RSP) platform. MetAlert owns the eSIM and is not locked into one vendor. On-SIM applets like Zero-Touch Provisioning mean that upon booting up, the device automatically connects to the nearest network and downloads a dedicated local profile – which makes it simple, scalable and cost-effective.
Data protection of the most vulnerable
So how is data stored, and is it safe? Andrew continues: ‘I think when you’re in the business of data and tracking you can use the information in the way that best suits your need. You can build in safeguards where you can say that you don’t have to store the data after say 24 hours or 48 hours. You could also make things anonymous if you wanted to. Depending on where you are, you can suit the tracking to fit your purpose.
‘But in essence, this small transmitter is trying to solve a terrible problem. Some people just get a little bit disoriented when they go out for a walk – and really don’t need constant care. And, it just gives family and carers the confidence of knowing that if that person isn’t where they expect them to be, they can locate them easily and go pick them up in the car.”
The future of IoT enabled wearables is a global one. With connectivity possible in 185 countries worldwide and multiple networks available in each country, companies looking to create tech that can operate anywhere now have realistic options. Future technologies such as Narrowband IoT (NB-I0T) with low power requirements and wide-area network reach will ensure the connectivity technology offers ongoing support to both global and remote solutions.
In a world where familiarity offers comfort to the user, the ongoing use of eSIM enables future proofing of these devices by allowing additional network profiles to be added over the air (OTA) as and when required. This process ensures the latest updates can keep everyone safe, without changing a thing about the footwear – which is an extremely positive step for protecting vulnerable people all over the world.