A UCI team is in the process of developing a new app, TrackCOVID, that maintains user privacy while tracking the spread of COVID-19.
Yasaka, co-developer and lead app coder, is a software engineer, a junior specialist in otolaryngology and a medical scribe at UCI Health. The idea came to him when he read an academic paper that discussed the tradeoff between economic and public health priorities and how it determines public policy.
“At the end of the paper, the authors briefly mentioned that technology-based contact tracing could provide a solution, if privacy concerns could be dealt with,” Yasaka said. “I took that as a challenge and came up with a design for an app that would perform contact tracing without creepy privacy invasions.”
From there, Brandon Lehrich, who earned a B.S. in biomedical engineering at UCI in 2018, and Dr. Ronald Sahyouni, a biomedical engineer in UCI’s joint M.D./Ph.D. Medical Scientist Training Program, helped Yasaka with the overall app idea and co-wrote the published paper regarding the app.
According to Yasaka, the app will allow high-volume public locations, such as grocery stores and public transportation, to have Quick Response (QR) codes displayed. When using, individuals scan these codes with their smartphones, which would then be stored on their phone. Users would also be able to “host” QR codes for private events, such as family gatherings.
“The information stays private, and the app doesn’t collect any information about the user — no GPS location, name, email, phone, etc,” Yasaka said.
If a person becomes infected with COVID-19, they can anonymously upload their QR codes to a database.
“Other people’s phones then can compare their own codes with the codes in the database,” Yasaka said. “If any of them are the same, the user is warned that they may have crossed paths with someone who was positive for COVID-19. This is all done anonymously and privately, so people only know that they may have been exposed, not where the exposure happened or who was responsible.”
This process is known as contact tracing. According to the CDC, contact tracing entails tracking people who might have been exposed to an infected person. The CDC believes that this is a key strategy in suppressing the spread of COVID-19. Potentially-infected people are tracked down by tracing their interactions with diagnosed patients. The exposed individuals are notified by public health officials and encouraged to self-isolate.
The app has received a considerable amount of attention but has not been released to the public.
“To take it further will require community leaders to take action to install these QR codes in public places,” Yasaka said. “It would also require coordination with doctors and testing facilities.”
Esme Park is a Contributing Writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.