Columbia Engineering and Business Schools Test COVID Contact Tracing App

Campus-based pilot test to help refine app ahead of its official launch for use in New York City and New York State

Sep 09 2020 | By Allison Elliott

As cities and states grapple with the new normal, there is a huge opportunity and demand for innovative technology that can help people throughout society lead safe and productive lives.

Contact tracing has and will continue to be an essential tool in managing the pandemic, one that will help communities more strategically and effectively slow the spread of COVID-19.

Last week, faculty, graduate students, and staff from Columbia Engineering and Columbia Business School joined a pilot test for a new contact tracing app developed by Tech:NYC and New York State.

This testing will help provide key feedback about the user experience to developers as they prepare for the app’s official launch. More than a simple software test, study results will also help inform best practices for communicating about contact tracing technology, a complex new tool in the fight against the pandemic. Similar to apps already in use in some states, it will leverage Bluetooth technology and a public database with anonymous randomly generated codes to alert users who may have been in contact with an infected person and give them further instructions from the Health Department.

“A contact tracing app that can alert people when they have been exposed to someone with the virus would be a game-changer in our ability to stop the spread of transmission,” said Mary C. Boyce, Dean of Engineering. “This will help lead the way to a safe return to life and sense of normalcy, not just on campus, but in New York City, New York State and eventually beyond.”

Bloomberg CTO and Tech:NYC volunteer Shawn Edwards BS’90 MS’95, in concert with colleagues, is spearheading the app development. Other partners who volunteered efforts through Tech:NYC include Fahd Arshad, Bonnie John, and Rachael Qureshi. SEAS Senior Executive Vice Dean Shih-Fu Chang, Professor Lydia Chilton of Computer Science, Prof. Noemie Elhadad of Biomedical Informatics at CUIMC and Computer Science and other faculty, provided feedback on app design and worked with the team to develop the pilot study to test the efficacy of the app’s contact tracing protocols to help ensure widespread adoption and participation.

A contact tracing app that can alert people when they have been exposed to someone with the virus would be a game-changer in our ability to stop the spread of transmission.

Mary C. Boyce
Dean of Engineering

At the kick-off launch for the test, Edwards stressed the importance of evidence-based design and the need for end user feedback in order to develop an app that will be effective in halting transmission.

“This is all about helping people help each other,” he said.

"The results of the study have been tremendously useful for us to assess the usability and utility the app provides. It also pointed the way to the most effective strategies for communication and messaging to its intended audience," said Fahd Arshad, lead of UX design of the app.

Also present at the kickoff were NYS Department of Health Chief Health Information Officer Mahesh Nattanmai and CSB Dean Costis Maglaras, who both extended their support for the collaboration.

Participants from Columbia Engineering included faculty, graduate students, postdoc researchers, and research admin staff who had returned to research laboratories on campus during the University Research Ramp-up process or returned to prepare for student return in the Fall semester. Roughly 180 users from engineering and the business school spent a week engaging in their regular activities, including research, teaching, administrative functions, and classroom learning. The testing period ran through Sunday, September 6 and was unrelated to the University’s formal health and safety program, the Columbia Community Health Compact.

“The results from this testing will make us that much more prepared and capable to manage the flow of people that makes Columbia and New York such a dynamic and wonderful place to live and work,” said Dean Boyce.