A team of researchers at University at Buffalo is in the works of developing an app that will provide a technologically advanced form of contact tracing intended to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Once a person is infected with COVID-19, he or she begins to interact with other people and objects, aka “fomites”, thus multiplying the spread of the virus into wider circles.
The new app, called PocketCare+, uses a smartphone’s Bluetooth technology to monitor the whereabouts of the user. If and when that user is diagnosed with COVID-19, the app kicks into gear.
University at Buffalo describes the process, as working as follows: “A user downloads the app, to measure each time the user is within a short distance of other people who have downloaded the app. The phone’s GPS technology marks the location of every encounter, as well as other places the user visited. If an app user tests positive, that person’s health care provider would access the data of the patient and then trigger an automated contact tracing process during which other app users who had a close encounter with the infected person and/or fomites will automatically receive a push notification on their phones.”
App users that receiving the notice then know to closely monitor their health, self-quarantine, and alert medical professionals if they develop symptoms.
Instead of manually retracing those who test positive for the virus, the app does all of the work, saving time, money, and hopefully saving lives. It could also be used during future outbreaks of infectious diseases.
“PocketCare+ has a tremendous potential to protect individuals and communities, especially the front-line workers, during this pandemic,” says the project’s leader, Chunming Qiao, SUNY Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “It could also better prepare various businesses, organizations, and governments in their plans to re-open.”
The original formations of the PocketCare+ app date back to five years ago when researches began to develop the technology to track the flu. The initial app was funded by an IMPACT grant program, sponsored by UB’s Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development (see study).
The app will run in the background with minimal impact on normal usage of your phone and battery consumption.
The team is also working on ensuring the privacy of all users. Information would be kept to a minimum – the system would not even be required to access names or phone numbers. Instead, it would use a smartphone’s “virtual” device ID number to send push notifications to users. Qiao says that the virtual device ID number would be used to send notifications, and GPS location information, which would be stored on the user’s phone. The app would also include advanced encryption methods for added protection.
While other contact tracing apps are being developed at this time, the UB team is convinced that it has come up with the utmost combination of privacy protection and effectiveness that will prove itself once released on the Google Play store and Apple’s App Store. At that time, the researchers and developers are asking epidemiologists, public health professionals, social workers as well as app developers and web designers, to add their own thoughts, opinions, and even collaborative advice to ensure the app is working at the top of its game.
PocketCare is developed by Lab for Advanced Network Design, Evaluation and Research (LANDER) at SUNY Buffalo.
Lead image: Photo by BENCE BOROS