Safer in Illinois app
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URBANA — The University of Illinois hopes to expand its COVID-19 exposure notification app statewide, which would help it access more efficient technology built into Apple and Android phones.

The Safer in Illinois app alerts users if they were near someone who later tested positive for COVID-19. In its current form, the app regularly sends background notifications to keep it running, something that wouldn’t be required with the protocols from Apple and Google.

“The state of Illinois expressed a lot of interest in the use of the Safer in Illinois for a statewide app,” the developer, Bill Sullivan, told the UI Academic Senate on Monday. “We will ask them to work with us to go to Google and Apple to use their technology that’s built into their operating systems.”

With the built-in protocols, the app would use less power and wouldn’t require the regular background notifications, Sullivan said.

“We’re very hopeful that that’s going to happen soon,” he said, but in the meantime, the app is being updated this week to send the notifications less often.

He also addressed concerns about the app asking for location access, something he said Google requires of exposure notification apps using Bluetooth.

“We collect no geolocation data, we do not store any location data, and no location data leaves a person’s phone from this app,” Sullivan said.

And he said almost everything in the app is stored in the app, not on UI databases, and can be deleted by the user.

The app is a key part of the UI’s strategy for bringing back students for a mix of in-person and online classes and keeping COVID-19 under control, along with a face-mask requirement and twice-a-week testing for people on campus.

It uses Bluetooth to anonymously detect random codes from nearby phones. If someone nearby later tests positive, the codes sent from that phone will be compared with codes detected by other phones.

If there’s a match, the person will be notified that they may have been in contact with someone who has the coronavirus.

For the app to be effective, UI physicist and COVID-19 modeler Nigel Goldenfeld said last week that at least 60 percent of the campus community would need to use it.

With the app and all of the UI’s other measures, Goldenfeld said that infections could be limited this semester to less than 500 people on campus and no more than 100 at a time.

Students and employees can also use the app to receive their results from the saliva-based test developed by UI researchers, and based on a variety of factors, the app will show whether a user has permission to enter campus buildings.

The app won’t be required, especially since some people don’t have smartphones, Chancellor Robert Jones said.

But the Urbana campus plans to buy 3,400 smartphones to loan out, Sullivan said.

The Urbana campus is conducting 2,000 tests per day and hopes to ramp that up to 10,000 a day, President Tim Killeen said at a separate meeting Monday of the trustees’ executive committee.

The UI System is hoping to capitalize on the testing technology, and on Monday, the committee voted to create a “university-related organization” to spread the technology to other states and universities.

“There’s intense interest, and I would say growing interest, in this technology for several obvious reasons,” Killeen said.

The results typically come back in a matter of hours, not days, and Killeen said the saliva-based tests are cheaper than the nose swab–based ones.

The university-related organization will allow the UI to negotiate licenses and manage intellectual property, Killeen said.

“I could list a number of universities that are outside of Illinois that have already expressed direct interest in this,” he said.

Some non-disclosure agreements have already been signed, Killeen said.

The testing system has already been expanded to the Chicago and Springfield campuses, and an internal unit is working to make the tests available in Illinois.

Killeen said he has briefed Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on the technology.

“We believe that we have a responsibility as a land-grant system to make it more generally available beyond our campus walls, if you like, including the communities in which our campuses are embedded,” Killeen said.

And he said the Grainger College of Engineering has designed a mobile truck “that will itself allow for 10,000 tests per day in locations to be to be determined by the modeling aspect of it.”

The first prototype of that truck will be delivered later this month, he said.

The trustees’ executive committee also approved giving each campus’ chancellor the authority and flexibility to reduce student fees — not tuition — as needed this academic year as the COVID-19 situation evolves.