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Chinese turn to virus tracker apps to avoid infected neighborhoods

Two companies have created platforms that take official information on neighborhoods with confirmed cases and map them for users.
Image: A passenger wears a protective mask following the outbreak of a new coronavirus on a MTR train in Hong Kong
A passenger wears a mask following the outbreak of a new coronavirus on an MTR train in Hong Kong on Monday, Feb. 3, 2020.Tyrone Siu / Reuters

Chinese residents are using mapping programs and travel trackers to avoid neighborhoods with infections of the coronavirus and to better prepare for the dangers they face.

Both the data mapping company QuantUrban and a third-party WeChat mini-program developer have created platforms that take official information on neighborhoods with confirmed cases and map it so users can gauge how close they are to infection sites.

While the WeChat program, called "YiKuang" or "Epidemic Situation," covers the southern cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou, QuantUrban's browser-based maps also cover nine other cities in Guangdong province.

"Shenzhen might have a major outbreak in the next few days, and government data comes out slowly," said April, a Shenzhen-based manager who declined to give her full name.

"Seeing the map is a psychological comfort. You can't guarantee there won't be fresh cases, but you can avoid an area that's already hit," she said.

Confirmed cases in Shenzhen have climbed rapidly, to 245 by Monday, making the southern tech capital the most badly affected of China's main cities — Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. It has a large population of migrant workers from the heavily affected central provinces.

"We wanted to annotate the information on the map so that the public could better see how epidemic sites are distributed more intuitively and also remind everyone to make adequate protection," said Yuan Xiaohui, QuantUrban's co-founder and CEO.

Volunteers also help the team keep the map up to date as the government releases data daily, she said.

Yikuang, which also relies on volunteers to keep up to date, originally denoted neighborhoods with confirmed cases with a skull and crossbones logo. It has since changed to less alarming exclamation points after users on the social media platform Weibo complained that they would cause panic.

"If I know that there are sick people nearby, I can take steps to be extra cautious," a finance student named Steven told Reuters. "I live between Shenzhen and Guangzhou, and these maps are really great there."

State-owned media CCTV and the official government newspaper People's Daily have also given their endorsements to separate programs that help users track whether a bus, train or airplane they have traveled on was also used by a confirmed infected patient.