As the coronavirus pandemic became apparent last winter, a small team of undergraduate computer science students – two students from the University of Virginia and one from the University of Notre Dame – began developing an application Bluetooth-based COVID-19 contact tracing. They called him TraceX.
Today, the app is ready and available – with the goal to help slow the spread of COVID-19 as students prepare to return to campuses.
The TraceX team is made up of UVA students Rohan Taneja and Emerson Berlik, and Notre Dame student Matthew Jennings. The trio first met while students at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria and continued their friendship.
Here Taneja describes its application and the idea behind it. (To see a YouTube demo, click here.)
Q. What is TraceX used for?
A. TraceX is a privacy-preserving contact tracing platform that empowers users to take an active role in containing the spread of COVID-19 within their communities. It’s currently an iOS-based app that uses Bluetooth signals to determine when someone has been near someone who has symptoms of COVID-19 or has recently tested positive for COVID. -19. These low-energy Bluetooth signals allow users to anonymously notify all of their recent close contacts if they test positive. The app does not use any location data, so TraceX users remain completely anonymous to each other and are not required to enter any further information.
We hope our app will provide an early model of how contact tracing technology can be both non-invasive and effective in keeping people informed of their risk of exposure to COVID-19 as the country slowly begins to reopen.
Q. How did you design it?
A. Our primary goal with the design of TraceX was to require as little information as possible from the user in order to both protect user privacy and provide an extremely simple interface for users of all ages. We wanted to make the integration as easy as possible so that no personal information or user login is required by the app. Users simply need to enable Bluetooth to start using the app immediately and they will be assigned unique hashed keys which will be exchanged when other TraceX users are nearby for several minutes. We chose to store these exposure events locally on users’ phones, rather than in a central database to better protect the privacy of user information.
The privacy-first approach was a crucial part of our design, as we wanted people to feel comfortable having this app on their phone. The success of digital contact tracing depends on as many people using the technology as possible, so we hope this approach will help communities feel confident that their information will be secure when adopting a tracing system. contacts.
Q. How is your app different from those offered by tech giants, such as Google and Apple?
A. Actually, Google and Apple don’t release an app for it. They published a framework [application program interface]essentially a programming library, to build the Bluetooth system, which is offered to different health organizations and local governments to build their own solutions.
Unfortunately, we won’t soon have any sort of universal system here in the United States like we’ve seen with other countries, and so different districts and states have to build their own solutions. This is one of the main reasons why we created this self-reporting system, so that we could provide a platform early on that would provide value, but also be used as a model for healthcare companies. who wish to implement this [application program interface].
Q. What brought you together as a team and inspired you to undertake this?
A. I started working on this with Emerson [Berlik] end of February as a side project to pass the time and learn something new. We both had some experience developing mobile apps and had started hearing about the rapid spread of COVID-19 cases in other countries. We were inspired by how quickly countries like Singapore were able to respond with their own innovative contact tracing solutions and wanted to try our own approach, as this technology was not yet available in the United States.
I had worked with Matt before [Jennings] on a similar geofencing app, and when we quickly started hearing about cases of COVID-19 popping up all over the United States, I asked him to join our team so we could bring it to market. We all went to the same high school and were excited to work together to create an early model of a privacy-first contact tracing solution.
What we really want from TraceX is to help spark interest in contact tracing and awareness of COVID-19 among students. Since there are now many tech companies and local governments focused on developing their own contact tracing solutions, we decided to focus on the demographics we know best and educate people. unfamiliar with contact tracing technology so they can familiarize themselves with how it works.
Q. Do you think it is ready for the market? And how can people get it?
A. TraceX is ready to market and we would like to publish it on the App Store, but unfortunately Apple recently announced very strict regulations for downloading health-related apps in light of COVID-19. For developers to release a COVID-19 app, they must be from an established healthcare company or have approval from state governments to release their app.
We have been in contact with healthcare experts and developers from large companies to share our ideas and have started to open up our platform so that it can have a wider reach for any institution that wishes to use it. Currently, interested users can download TraceX through TestFairy, which is a popular beta testing platform for mobile apps. Anyone can sign up to become a beta tester through our website.
Q. How has your education and training at AVU prepared you for this?
A. We are fortunate to be exposed to many AVU students and alumni, which has fueled our passion for technology and start-ups. A few AVU faculty and alumni have been instrumental in helping us understand and navigate the complicated regulatory process for COVID-19 health apps.
Emerson and I are computer science students and many computer science courses have been very helpful in learning how professional software platforms should be built from the ground up using best practices.