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New UB app could help with COVID-19 contact tracing


Wed, Apr 29th 2020 09:20 pm

PocketCare+ aims to track not only where and when the disease spreads, but also how it spreads

By the University at Buffalo

To slow the spread of COVID-19, individuals who test positive are asked to retrace the people and places they recently interacted with.

This task, called contact tracing, isn’t easy. Days get mixed up. Meetings are forgotten. There’s no foolproof way to remember everyone.

It’s also difficult to determine how a person was infected, whether they unknowingly touched contaminated objects – known to medical professionals as "fomites" – or if the transmission occurred person-to-person via respiratory droplets.

To fill these information gaps, University at Buffalo researchers are developing an app called PocketCare+ (pronounced “pocket care plus”) that they say could help public health officials track and prevent the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, as well as future infectious disease outbreaks.

The app is believed to be among the first that deals with both direct virus transmission (person-to- person contact) and indirect virus transmission (contact with fomites). It is designed to significantly reduce the time and cost associated with contact tracing.

Here is how it works. A user downloads the app, which uses their smartphone’s Bluetooth technology 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 receiving the notice then know to closely monitor their health, self-quarantine and alert medical professionals if they develop symptoms.

“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 in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “It could also better prepare various businesses, organizations and governments in their plans to reopen.”

The project stems from an effort five years ago, when UB researchers created an Android app to trace the spread of the flu. That original app, which was available on the Google Play store and used by many UB students, was made possible through funding from the IMPACT grant program, sponsored by UB’s Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development.

(More information on that effort is available in a study published in the Proceedings of the ACM on Interactive, Mobile, Wearable and Ubiqitous Technologies.)

The team working on PocketCare+ is focused on ensuring the privacy of would-be users.

The new app can function without personal identifiable information such as the name or telephone number of users, Qiao says. Instead, it would use the smartphone’s “virtual” device ID number to send push notifications to users. Also, the GPS location information will be stored only on users’ phones to protect privacy. The app uses several encryption methods that can preserve user privacy when processing Bluetooth contact info and GPS locations, he says.

In recent weeks, contact tracing apps have been announced by governments, nonprofits, academic researchers and private companies, including a joint effort from Apple and Google.

Those apps use similar technologies as the original PocketCare app, but make various tradeoffs between privacy protection and the apps’ effectiveness, which depends on many factors. PocketCare+ is designed to achieve what the UB team believes is an optimal balance between privacy protection and effectiveness.

The team is seeking additional guidance from epidemiologists, public health professionals, social workers and others who can offer diverse opinions and expertise to make PocketCare+ more effective, as well as app developers and web designers to continuously improve PocketCare+, which will be available soon on the Google Play store and Apple’s App Store.

To learn more about PocketCare+ and receive updates, visit https://pocketcareplus.cse.buffalo.edu.

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