NCSA contributes to development of Safer Illinois app

10.20.20 -

As COVID-19 continues to spread across the country, universities everywhere have faced monumental and multifaceted hurdles when trying to adapt to a new pandemic reality. This reality has, in turn, forced difficult decisions and prompt adaptations from institutions like the University of Illinois, who are seeking to carry out their research mission. Social distancing, masks, and online instruction are the new normal for students nationwide, but the need for widespread, rapid testing of this novel virus is paramount in determining what the true spread of COVID-19 is, and how to prevent any further spread.

When tasked with this novel challenge, faculty and staff at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) came together to find a solution. With the announcement of a new, campus-developed saliva test, a team of university-based researchers quickly began building the infrastructure necessary to carry out testing on a campus wide scale.

Calling on many campus entities, some on the IT side including University of Illinois Technology Services, Administrative Information Technology Services (AITS), researchers from the Coordinated Science Lab's Alchemy Group, NCSA's Cybersecurity Division, as well as the expertise of NCSA's Software Directorate, formed a team tasked with data flow and exposure notifications for the University's ambitious testing program. To address the exposure notification part of this, the team developed the Safer Illinois app, an all-in-one hub for COVID-19 testing information.

The Safer Illinois app provides a wealth of COVID-19 testing-related information across the University of Illinois campus

The Safer Illinois app provides a wealth of COVID-19 testing-related information across the University of Illinois campus

"In a place like a university campus, there is constant information coming from different sources, from athletic events to dining halls," said Sandeep Puthanveetil Satheesan, Senior Research Programmer at NCSA and lead of the NCSA's team contributing to the Safer Illinois App. "In the Rokwire platform, one of the main ideas is to try and integrate information coming from these heterogeneous sources, process and distribute it through a more intuitive interface like a mobile app based on users’ preferences."

In order to collect and make sense of this mountain of data, the collaboration turned to their smart communities platform, Rokwire, which provides the foundational back-end to connect data from many disparate sources, and has been the basis for Illinois, the University's official mobile app, since 2019.

Before the pandemic, students could interact with Rokwire via the Illinois app to view events happening on campus, view dining hall menus and hours, present a digital version of a student identification card to ride local transit, view schedules and live scores of Illini Athletics games, and more, all in a single app.

"As the pandemic started spreading in the U.S. and we had the initial lockdown, the leadership started thinking about adding features to the Rokwire platform that could enable campus to safely reopen," said Puthanveetil Satheesan. "One of the ideas that was presented was an ID card, like a passport that would tell the users what their health and testing status is as it relates to the pandemic. We already had this concept of a digital i-Card in the Illinois app at that time, and this made a natural transition."

Rokwire's goal is to enable smart communities and campuses by integrating information into a single app, a particularly useful emphasis for distributing thousands of encrypted daily test results.

Thanks to the quick and hard work of the collaboration, Rokwire was quickly utilized to meet pandemic-era exposure notification needs via the Safer Illinois app, allowing students and faculty to view their test results, building access status, acting as a "health passport" of sorts to minimize the spread of COVID-19 on campus. To enter a building for class, for example, a student can show evidence of approved building access via the Safer Illinois app on their phone, brought to them by the Rokwire platform.

But as with any app that handles personal data come new concerns, however, particularly about privacy.

In order to address this, the collaboration allows users to decide the amount of information they want to provide to the app via optional features. When enabled, these will allow more information and permissions to be shared with the app, such as Bluetooth access or receiving notifications.

"Right from the initiation of the Rokwire project, privacy was one of the main things that we wanted to address at its very core level," said Puthanveetil Satheesan. "The platform itself is designed in a way that addresses these concerns to a large extent and allows users to decide and view exactly what data is being shared with the platform, how that data gets used and what features get enabled with their various permissions."

Depending on a user's permission, the Safer Illinois App can also automatically provide exposure notifications via Bluetooth, allowing users to know if they've come in contact with a known positive case. This is done in an anonymous way without any location or identity sharing.

Technology Services at Illinois provides an in-depth explanation of the feature as well as the technology behind it.

Because Rokwire is an open source platform, other universities could potentially use the platform and apply it for their own needs, pandemic-related or otherwise. For those wanting to see the open source code that powers the Safer Illinois app, you can check out their GitHub organization and download the code yourself.

About NCSA

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign provides supercomputing and advanced digital resources for the nation's science enterprise. At NCSA, University of Illinois faculty, staff, students, and collaborators from around the globe use advanced digital resources to address research grand challenges for the benefit of science and society. NCSA has been advancing one third of the Fortune 50® for more than 30 years by bringing industry, researchers, and students together to solve grand challenges at rapid speed and scale.