Alchemy student team develops key technology for Safer Illinois App
A large part of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s plan to return to campus this fall has been the Safer Illinois mobile application. Researchers determined that an essential component of the campus’ testing and targeting practices would be contact tracing but wanted to do so in a way that wouldn’t compromise user privacy. Developing this important feature was a complex undertaking with a tight deadline, but a team of undergraduate engineering students was up to the challenge.
The group of students was brought together by the IBM-Illinois Center for Cognitive Systems Research (C3SR), housed in the Coordinated Science Lab, under its innovative Alchemy program, which brings together student teams to develop technologies that solve real-world problems. When the campus was closed in March due to the COVID -19 pandemic, C3SR wanted to find a way to use technology to help the campus. Through the center’s Alchemy program, it formed two student teams: the coTracker team, which focused on digital contact tracing, and the RokWall team, which focused on privacy-preserving computing.
As a result of their effort, Safer Illinois, unlike many other COVID-19 apps, doesn’t use location data for its digital contact tracing capabilities, reducing the need for information that can compromise a user’s privacy.
“These students went from knowing very little about building mobile applications, digital contract tracing, privacy-preserving computing, or COVID-19, to becoming digital contact tracing gurus,” said Jinjun Xiong, C3SR co-director and program director for IBM Cognitive Computing Systems Research at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center. “We were the first ones to look into Apple and Google's exposure notification application programming interface (API). We found various issues and obstacles in our initial attempt to adopt the APIs for campus use. In the end, we had to come up with our own design and implement it from scratch so it could be made available to the Illinois community quickly.”
In order to offer digital contract tracing without compromising user’s location, the students worked through a mobile phone’s Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) connection to connect Safer Illinois applications to each other, allowing devices to talk to each other in the background by exchanging anonymous codes. When an app user tests positive for COVID-19 and gives the app their consent, the person’s phone uploads the information to a secure server and the information is sent to the other applications with which it had exchanged anonymous codes. Each application periodically downloads the anonymous codes to check if it has been in close proximity to any devices from infected persons for a specific duration of time. If yes, the device will notify its user of a potential exposure risk and the corresponding recommended course of actions (such as self-quarantine or more frequent tests).
The students, who are studying electrical and computer engineering (ECE) and computer science, realized the magnitude of their work and the impact it continues to have.
“All my peers, friends, colleagues, and professors, are using the app, so it becomes my responsibility to uphold the quality standard and make sure everything works well,” said Vedant Agrawal, a junior in computer engineering. “The development process was a rewarding and educational experience because it taught me how to perform well even in very tough conditions. It’s great to see my friends and people on campus can use it, but it comes with a lot of responsibility.”
Safer Illinois has more than 44,000 users; more than half have enabled digital contact tracing.
“We spent a large part of the summer grappling with technology issues that plagued other groups’ efforts that tried to develop this, but the team was relentless, and we solved the problem for our campus,” said Alchemy Directory Sanjay Patel, CSL faculty and ECE professor. “It’s very rewarding to be part of an effort that potentially could be very successful for Illinois and other institutions and communities. In terms of digital exposure notification participation rate, we probably have the highest rate in the world.”
The Safer Illinois app is part of Illinois’ larger Shield Initiative. C3SR is a joint venture between IBM Research and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to solve the most pressing issues facing the new computing era of artificial intelligence (AI) and cognitive computing.