WU encourages students to use new smartphone contact tracing service developed at WUSM

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The University of Washington is starting to encourage the use of MO / Notify, a free COVID-19 exposure notification service for students, faculty and staff, but rollout has been slow.

The service, accessible through the “Exposure notifications” setting on iPhones or as an app for Android devices, was developed by scientists at the Institute of Informatics at the Washington University School of Medicine and launched in late July .

The service works using Bluetooth technology in smartphones. When two phones with MO / Notify are within six feet of each other, they exchange randomly generated anonymous codes that are stored on the phones for 14 days. If someone using MO / Notify reports a positive COVID-19 test, then any phone that has previously stored a code associated with the COVID-positive person will be alerted that it may have been exposed.

MO / Notify may sound similar to traditional contact tracing, but the University of Washington School of Medicine’s associate dean for health information and data science, Dr Philip Payne, explained that this service has unique advantages. He said MO / Notify could turn contact tracing that “used to take days” into a process that takes “minutes and hours”.

“We had this opportunity to work with Google and Apple to create a mobile solution to speed up this type of contact tracing,” Payne said. “And that’s where MO / Notify comes in, because MO / Notify takes this process that was manual and makes it automated, but it also automates it in a way that is deliberately designed to keep the privacy of the people there. ‘use and, quite frankly, traditional contact tracing doesn’t do that.

MO / Notify was completely new to many students. Of the 20 students interviewed on the Danforth campus, only one recognized the name MO / Notify. Graduate student Fateme Mohseni said she “saw it in the email,” but then forgot to inquire about the service.

“I forgot to look for more and find [out] what it is, ”Mohseni said. “I was not sure that they [were talking] about the future, whether they want to have these things for us or [that] we can already use it.

Most of the students were unaware of the service, but expressed enthusiasm for its potential benefits. Junior Sam Meiselman said he had not heard of the service but that “contact tracing seems to be an important thing”.

Likewise, senior Hud Bolender said he hadn’t seen the service anywhere, but it was “obvious”.

“Some people think it’s a privacy breach, but I think as long as it doesn’t go too far… it can be really helpful,” Bolender said. “If we can implement this contract tracing system, I think it will be a lot easier to take a lot of pressure off people.”

Laura Swofford, director of marketing and communications for the Office of Health Information and Data Science, acknowledged that advertising for MO / Notify has been limited so far.

“There was a first story in The Record and then we published something every time in the COVID bulletin here on the medical campus,” Swofford said. “We’re just getting to the point where we get our order for MO / Notify masks and we’re handing out thousands of flyers to test centers and residential buildings, so we’re starting to get there just now. So I’m not surprised people haven’t heard of it.

Payne clarified that it is still early days for MO / Notify. “We’ve only been here a few weeks and we’ve taken a sort of deliberate approach of getting an initial group of users who read those first ads and making sure it works for them, and then our plan is to keep doing it. evolve, ”Payne said. “Our longer-term goals are to partner with other organizations throughout the Saint-Louis metropolitan area and then across the state. “

While some students expressed their enthusiasm for the implementation of MO / Notify, others were more hesitant. Senior Divya Sharma has expressed privacy concerns regarding the service.

“I already don’t like that my phone is tracking my location and I feel like there are other ways to track the virus without needing your phone,” Sharma said.

Sophomore Brendan Yang said he would like “transparency on how it works” before joining the service.

Payne addressed potential concerns about privacy, explaining that “[MO/Notify] does not actually follow your position. What it follows is your proximity to other phones. He added that “all data is stored on your phone … and every 10-14 days that data is purged from your phone.”

Swofford added that “you are already walking around with this technology in your pocket” and that “it actually doesn’t track your location, which ten thousand things are doing in your pocket … So that won’t tell someone that you have COVID in the DUC. “

Payne’s message to the university community is that everyone must do their part to bring the pandemic under control.

“[MO/Notify is] built to keep everyone safe and to give people the information they need to stay healthy, ”he said. “Part of that process is getting everyone to volunteer, to participate, and it’s an opportunity when people participate in MO / Notify to contribute to the larger well on campus and so that’s really what we ask everyone to do. It’s good for your personal health and safety, but it’s good for the health and safety of the campus community [as well]. “

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