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How Close Are You To COVID-19? Contact Tracing App Assesses Personal Pandemic Risk

MILWAUKEE (SPECTRUM NEWS) — When it comes to assessing our risk for COVID-19, Po-Shen Loh says a lot of us are driving blind: We don’t have much of an idea of how immediate the risk is, and most contact tracing efforts focus on alerting people who have already been exposed.

With his contact tracing app, NOVID, Loh hopes to give people “headlights” to look ahead and see how many degrees of separation they are from a positive case. 

“The contrast is that other apps were designed to protect other people from you,” says Loh, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who grew up in Madison. “Our app is designed to protect you from others.”

The NOVID app works by using a combination of Bluetooth and ultrasound technology to figure out when you are close to other users, Loh explains. The app logs any interactions when you are within about nine feet of someone for at least nine minutes, and from there, builds out a network of connections.

NOVID users can then see if any positive cases have been reported among people they’ve interacted with, or among those people’s connections, up to 12 relationships away. And it’s all anonymous — “no strings attached,” as Loh says. 

“The value here is that wherever the hotspots are, those hotspots will actually become less hot, because the people who are around them see that, ‘Whoa, it’s hot,’ and start to act more carefully,” Loh says. “This is the whole point of our pre-exposure warning system.”

Loh generally dedicates himself to education as a math professor, national Math Olympiad coach, and founder of Expii, an online learning platform. Before now, he thought he would be best remembered for finding a quicker way to solve quadratic equations.

But he says that given the pressing issue of COVID-19, he wanted to find a way to apply his background to stopping the spread. And, as a recipient of a Hertz Foundation fellowship from when he was pursuing his PhD years ago, Loh made an official “moral commitment” to help out in times of national crisis.

“This is the most important problem in the entire world right now,” Loh says.

After figuring out he could apply his past research in network theory to the current pandemic, Loh began building up a team in March to bring his vision to life, creating a tool that can show how COVID-19 moves through a network of human relationships. They launched the Android version of the app April 7, and since then have enrolled around 80,000 users.

It’s a useful tool for college campuses, Loh says, as it allows individual students to make informed decisions about their behavior and runs off the personal incentive of users preserving their own health. NOVID already has an official partnership with Georgia Tech and has campus ambassadors at schools across the country.

Jamie Gill, the campus ambassador at UW-Milwaukee, says he’s been reaching out to family and friends about the app, and generally gotten positive responses. 

“The conventional tracing is great, but it’s also fraught with delays, with bureaucracy, with annoying types of things,” Gill says. “I think the natural way to go is to use an app, especially if you’re at the college level. It’s just that extra layer of protection.”

Though some people he’s talked to are initially concerned about privacy, Gill says the NOVID team takes anonymity seriously. The app doesn’t require a username, password, or email address to work, and instead generates a random identifier for each user. “When you install the app, we have no idea who you are — and it’ll stay that way,” the app’s FAQ page says.

Plus, Gill says he was excited about the app’s novel use of ultrasound technology, which gets users’ phones “chirping” at each other to find accurate distance estimates.

The app uses Bluetooth to recognize if other users are roughly nearby, Loh says. It’ll then use the phone’s speaker to send out an ultrasonic pitch — one that’s out of range for humans to hear it — and open up the microphone to record how long it takes to hear a response. As Loh explains, it’s like measuring the distance of a lightning strike by counting the time until you hear the thunderclap. 

Colleges across the country have already been struggling to keep cases down as students return to campus. UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank issued a statement Monday asking undergraduates to “severely limit in-person interaction,” as the school has already recorded more than 1,000 positive cases among students and employees. Dozens of cases have been reported at other UW campuses, with hundreds quarantining in residence halls, sororities, and fraternities.

While NOVID can’t completely fix the pandemic, Gill says he sees it as another valuable tool for students. When it comes to apps and other potential solutions in the pandemic, “the more the merrier,” he says.

“At the college group, the individual risk is actually super low. But for me, you just don’t want to be a propagator of a spread,” Gill says. “The way I look at it is, instead of spreading physical contact, try to spread information and knowledge.”

In addition to college campuses, Loh envisions NOVID could be useful in partnerships with K-12 schools and cities. The goal for the app is to find a middle ground between the alternating “panic” and “fatigue” that come from the uncertainty of the pandemic, he says. If the app gives people headlights to see ahead of them, then full shutdown measures are instead like telling people they just can’t drive at night, which Loh says is not a good solution.

A few months into the app’s lifespan, Loh says the team is still working to build partnerships, get more users on the app, and fine-tune the app’s algorithm. He says he’s inspired by all the experts dedicating themselves to combating COVID-19, and driven to keep doing what he can to help.

“Everyone has different things that make them tick,” Loh says. “I’m inspired by this idea of trying to leave some value, so that when I’m not part of this world anymore, there’s something I’ve done that contributes to the history of the human condition.”

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