A Clean Slate and a Lot of Energy

Safer Illinois app – custom built by University of Illinois developers, researchers, and students – is a crucial element of the campus’ COVID-19 response.

Spring 2021

Students returned to in-person instruction at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in August 2020 because the campus developed and committed to a saliva-based testing program – low-cost, convenient, scalable to as many as 10,000 test a day, with accurate results returned in a matter of hours.

“Simply put, the strategy is test everyone frequently and rapidly provide results,” said Professor Sanjay Patel of the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering. That strategy included more than 15 walk-in testing centers established across campus, as well as a mobile app called Safer Illinois.

“We realized early on in the process of putting this strategy together that testing alone would not be enough. If we’re really going to mobilize a campus community of over 40,000 people, we need a digital component. We got started around April with nothing but a clean slate and a lot of energy. And by August, this was a state-of-the-art app with new technology that was deployed alongside all of the testing.”

The Safer Illinois app provides users with information, including their testing history, wait times at testing sites, and next steps should they test positive. It also incentivizes regularly testing, which improves compliance and community health. Those working and studying on campus are required to show an app-based access pass in order to enter campus buildings. If a person misses their scheduled test, the pass is revoked.

Safer Illinois app showing user status
Safer Illinois app showing user status

Privacy-preserving exposure notification is another innovative feature of the Safer Illinois app. An anonymized code is transmitted using Bluetooth from the phones of users who opt-in to the exposure notification system. Users are alerted if they have been in the proximity of someone who has subsequently tested positive for COVID-19.

“Grainger Engineering undergraduate students built some of the most tricky technology that’s in Safer Illinois. They spent their entire summer, essentially, finding ways to make this work. Including a number of researchers on our campus, they were coming up with cryptographic protocols to make this work, the Bluetooth transmission, integration into iOS and Android. Many other institutions have tried, but we were able to make it successful” said Patel, who is also a Sony Faculty Scholar.

The students are members of Alchemy, a university-based technology incubator that brings together students, faculty, entrepreneurs, investors, and corporate partners. Patel leads Alchemy, as well as the IBM-Illinois Center for Cognitive Computing Systems Research focused on artificial intelligence and cognitive computing.

The team built the app on the Rokwire platform for mobile computing. Rokwire is focused on building smart, healthy communities by integrating diverse streams of data and sensor information and by significantly reducing app development times.

In the Rokwire platform, privacy isn’t “opt in/opt out.” There’s a spectrum. Users of the Safer Illinois app can choose one of five privacy levels. Each level is explicit about what sort of data might be shared and what benefits users will get in return. Levels of privacy can change any time the users request it, so building data management systems can be purged any time, in a variety of ways, at the user’s request.

“We built it so that any data going in can be wiped out,” said Professor Bill Sullivan of the Landscape Architecture Department at Illinois. He directs the Smart, Healthy Community Initiative, the home of Rokwire. “Truly deleting data can be difficult with other systems or with social media, because the system wasn’t built with that as an option. We put privacy first from the ground up.”

By early December 2020, more than one million tests were performed at the University of Illinois. Safer Illinois has delivered notifications and generated exposure predictions at every step.

“In my career I’ve been involved in a lot of projects – both within the university and within industry – and what happened with Safer Illinois was just a groundswell of effort with people from Rokwire, campus Technology Services, the Center for Social and Behavioral Sciences, NCSA, and a number of other organizations including Grainger Engineering faculty, including the leadership of John Paul, a clinical faculty member in Innovation, Leadership & Engineering Entrepreneurship and a Grainger Engineering alumnus. And it all came together in a very short amount of time,” Patel said. “It was an incredibly remarkable thing to be part of.”