As the coronavirus pandemic became apparent last winter, a small team of undergraduate computer science students – two students at the University of Virginia, and one at the University of Notre Dame – began developing a Bluetooth-based COVID-19 contact tracing app. They called it TraceX.
Today, the app is ready and available – the goal being to help slow the spread of COVID-19 as college students prepare to return to campuses.
The TraceX team consists of UVA students Rohan Taneja and Emerson Berlik, and Notre Dame student Matthew Jennings. The trio first met as students at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, and have continued their friendship.
Here, Taneja describes their app and the idea behind it. (To see a YouTube demonstration, click here.)
Q. What is TraceX designed to do?
A. TraceX is a privacy-preserving contact tracing platform that enables users to play an active role in containing the spread of COVID-19 within their communities. It is currently an iOS-based app that uses Bluetooth signals to determine when someone has been in close proximity to an individual who has COVID-19 symptoms or has recently tested positive for COVID-19. These low-energy Bluetooth signals provide a way for 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 input any other 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 on their risk of COVID-19 exposure 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 from the user as possible in order to both protect user privacy and provide an extremely simple interface for users of all ages. We wanted to make onboarding as simple as possible, so there is no personal information or user login required by the app. Users simply have to enable Bluetooth to begin using the app immediately and they will be assigned uniquely hashed keys which are exchanged when other TraceX users are in close proximity for several minutes. We chose to store these exposure events locally on the users’ phones, rather than in a central database to further protect the privacy of users’ information.
The privacy-first approach was a crucial part of our design because we wanted people to feel comfortable having this app on their phone. The success of digital contact tracing is dependent on having as many people using the technology as possible, so we hope this approach will help communities trust that their information will be secured when adopting a contact tracing system.
Q. How is your app different from those proposed by the tech giants, such as Google and Apple?
A. Actually, Google and Apple are not releasing an app for this. They released a framework [application program interface], basically a programming library, to build the Bluetooth system, which is being offered to different health organizations and local governments to build their own solutions.
Unfortunately, we won’t have any sort of universal system here in the United States anytime soon as we’ve seen with other countries, and so different districts and states are having to build their own solutions. It’s one of the main reasons we’ve created this self-reporting system, so that we could provide a platform early on that would provide value, but also be used as a template for health companies that do want to implement this [application program interface].
Q. What brought you together as a team and inspired you to take this on?
A. I originally started working on this with Emerson [Berlik] in late February as more of a side project to pass the time and learn something new. We both had some previous experience developing mobile apps and had begun 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, since this technology was not yet available in the U.S.
I had previously worked with Matt [Jennings] on a similar geofencing app, and when we soon began hearing about COVID-19 cases popping up all over the U.S., I asked him to join our team so that we could bring this to market. We all attended the same high school and were excited to work together on creating an early model of a privacy-first contact tracing solution.
What we really want from TraceX is to help drive interest for contact tracing and COVID-19 awareness among college students. Since there are now many technology companies and local governments focused on developing their own contact tracing solutions, we decided to focus on the demographics we know best and to educate people who are not familiar with contact tracing technology so they can become more comfortable with how it works.
Q. Do you feel it’s ready for market? And how can people get it?
A. TraceX is ready for market and we would love to publish it to the app store, but unfortunately Apple has recently announced very tight regulations for uploading health-related apps in light of COVID-19. For developers to release a COVID-19 application, they must be from an established health care company or have approval from state governments to publish their application.
We have been in contact with both health experts and developers from larger companies to share our ideas and have begun open-sourcing our platform so it can have a wider reach for any institution that wants to use it. Currently, interested users can download TraceX via TestFairy, which is a popular beta-testing platform for mobile apps. Anyone can sign up to be a beta tester through our website.
Q. How has your education and training at UVA prepared you for this?
A. We’re fortunate to have exposure to many UVA student and alumni entrepreneurs and this has fueled our passion for technology and start-ups. A few UVA professors and alumni have been instrumental in helping us understand and navigate the complicated regulatory process for COVID-19-related health apps.
Emerson and I are computer science majors and a lot of the computer science classes have been super useful for learning how professional software platforms should be built from the ground up using best practices.