As states across the country begin to ease restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, maintaining social distancing practices and contact tracing has been essential in order to reduce the spread of the disease. In countries such as South Korea and Singapore, the practice has been particularly influential in limiting the spread of the novel coronavirus when paired with other restrictions.
In response, rising fourth-year Engineering student Rohan Taneja and rising third-year Engineering student Emerson Berlik developed a new contact tracing app called TraceX they hope will help limit the spread of the virus. The app uses Bluetooth technology to ensure privacy while effectively informing users about potential exposures to the virus.
Contact tracing is a public health tool that identifies individuals who have been exposed to a contagious disease so these individuals can take precautionary measures to avoid further spread. This method historically has been used to track diseases such as measles and tuberculosis, but in recent months, it has been expanded to manage COVID-19 spread.
Once users download TraceX, they must enable Bluetooth and notifications to begin to use the app. Users will then input if they are feeling healthy, experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or have tested positive for the virus.
TraceX will alert users if they were in contact with an individual who was symptomatic. The app uses Bluetooth at low frequencies to connect with other phones, but users must be within six to eight feet of each other for several minutes in order to receive notifications about potential exposure. If an individual changes their health status to indicate that they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or have tested positive, other users who were around that person during the past 14 days will be notified.
Taneja notes that users should follow the CDC’s recommended guidelines of self-quarantine after potential exposure.
“The point of contact tracing, and especially with using this app, is that now you have a way where that person can report being positive, or they can report symptoms at the very least, anonymously on this app,” Taneja said. “[It] can notify you that you've been exposed, and so you know that you should probably self-quarantine.”
By using Bluetooth at low frequencies instead of developing a location-based app, TraceX can maintain user privacy and avoid draining phone battery. Locations or other personal data are not collected or shared by TraceX. Additionally, any notifications of potential exposures are anonymous.
Taneja was inspired to create the app when he realized that the virus was spreading a lot faster than first anticipated. He reached out to Berlik, whom he had previously worked with for iOS development projects, to join his research project. Taneja later reached out to Matthew Jennings, a high school friend and rising senior at the University of Notre Dame, to help market the project, handle media outlet contacts and control TraceX’s social media accounts. After getting together, the team decided to further develop the app as a resource for the public.
Taneja and Berlik began app development in late February, first researching potential ways to implement their idea while maintaining user privacy. Within a month, the team created the general technology for the app and then started fixing bugs. They also added additional features such as the ability to send notifications to users after another individual noted a change in symptoms.
Taneja and Berlik mentioned that manipulating Bluetooth was one of the biggest challenges throughout the app development process. Bluetooth is usually used to connect with other devices such as headphones or speakers, but the team had to instead research ways to use Bluetooth to communicate between phones.
“Apple uses something called an iBeacon, which is their way of using Bluetooth devices to check the location from each other and connect to each other, [which] causes big issues with background usage,” Berlik said. “We did quite a bit of research and found that it was very possible to strictly use Bluetooth to do the exact same thing or at least emulate it.”
The team is currently working with beta testers, a select group of participants that test the functionality of the app in the real world. This first group of beta-testers was composed of the team’s close friends and family members, but after gaining more exposure through a recently published YouTube video, more individuals have volunteered for the role by signing up on the TraceX website.
As a result, the team is holding off on a launch date. Instead, they are looking to partner with a university or state health system in hopes that the collaboration would add more credibility to their resource and increase TraceX’s outreach.
Jennings also mentioned difficulties with maintaining momentum with the project due to the approval process Apple has set in place for apps related to COVID-19. In particular, Jennings said that developers for these apps must be from accredited health agencies or companies. Additionally, he stated that communicating that TraceX was a safe platform that maintains user privacy was challenging.
“There is a general uneasiness among people when it comes to sharing their location, especially when it comes to sharing their health information with others,” Jennings said. “The biggest thing we had to do was communicate how TraceX has complete pseudonymity and I feel like the YouTube video we published did a good job of that.”
Taneja and Berlik noted that the app could be very beneficial once classes resume in the fall, especially as the University has said that it will use symptom tracking and contact tracing requirements in the fall.
The team is also working on developing an Android version of the application to reach even more users.
“We're actually looking into having a university or having some educational institution that we can work with because one big problem with contact tracing is it's most effective when you have more people using it, of course,” Taneja said. “If you work with institutions [where] you can collaborate with bigger groups for starting to work on this, I think we could sort of expedite this whole process of getting this contact tracing system out to students.”