Privacy-Conscious App Developed at UNL Could Help Health Officials With Critical Contact Tracing

May 20, 2020, 2 p.m. ·

Screenshots of the app's privacy message and how a message sent to a user in the app looks. (Courtesy: NUtech Ventures, UNL)

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Software developed at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln could be used for contact tracing in the effort to limit the spread of COVID-19.

When a person tests positive for COVID-19, health officials start a long process of tracking down anyone who may have been exposed to that person’s infection — this contact tracing takes a lot of time and resources.

But software developed by UNL Professor of Sociology Bilal Khan could make that process a lot easier.

Users download an app on their phone. But instead of tracking where a person is at any given time, it activates when another person with the app is nearby. That allows health officials to pinpoint people you’ve been close to recently, even strangers you would never know to report to health officials.

Bilal and his team have been working on the software for about five years, originally designing it for social science research, not a pandemic. So far researchers have used it to study homeless youth in Lincoln, and drug users in rural parts of Nebraska.

"We have a tremendous head start in building this system because by sheer accident we were in the business of understanding how populations evolve and how their attitudes and behaviors evolve through social contact," Khan said.

He quickly adapted it and has offered it to public health officials.

Bilal says protecting privacy was the first priority in developing the program; it doesn’t collect personal information like names or emails, and instead assigns a random ID number to each user.

He points out there are similar projects also in development. His app has a secondary function that could be useful during the pandemic – it can ask users targeted questions to gauge public sentiment on an issue.

"And also the conditions in which those questions should be asked," Khan said. "Like, I would like this question to be asked when the person goes near the gym."

Or, for example – when a user leaves a grocery store, the app could ask if that person wore a face mask while shopping. Health officials would decide what questions to ask, and the results could be made available for the public to see.

Bilal is working with the university’s commercialization affiliate, NUtech Ventures, to look for partners that may be interested in using the app.

Learn more about the process and challenges of contact tracing on this week’s episode of Speaking of Nebraska. Tune into the live town hall with Gov. Pete Ricketts Thursday at 8:30 Central on NET and NET Radio.