NMSU students develop contact tracing app

New Mexico State University computer science students Fabio Tardivo, Long Tran and Thanh Nguyen developed a phone app that will help NMSU health officials conduct contact tracing of COVID-19 cases on campus.

What started in June as an idea about tracking COVID-19 cases on the New Mexico State University campus is becoming a reality as the fall semester gets underway.

Mobile contact-tracing apps, which can be downloaded to smart phones, can track who each user has been in proximity to and can then alert all affected users when one of them tests positive for infection.

The application developed by NMSU computer science graduate students Fabio Tardivo and Thanh Nguyen, along with undergraduate computer science student Long Tran, who participated on the project, will allow students, faculty and staff to directly self-report positive COVID-19 results to the Aggie Health and Wellness Center. That report will trigger a number of features in the application.

“An important feature of the app will record your location within the boundary of NMSU from the time you enter the campus to the time you leave it,” said Son Tran, computer science professor and department head. Tran emphasized this is only done if the user allows the app to track their GPS location.

“The GPS locations will be used for contact tracing and to identify people who are within six feet of a COVID-19 positive patient for at least 15 minutes,” Tran said. “This is part of the back end of the application. It does not reside on your phone.”

Phone app developed by computer science graduate students at New Mexico State University will aid health workers in contact tracing cases of COVID-19 on campus. The app is now available on Apple’s App Store. (Josh Bachman/New Mexico State University)

If the user doesn’t allow the GPS to track them, but connects with the wireless network on campus, that data can be used instead. The data generated through the app will be reported to the Aggie Health and Wellness Center, and staff there will follow New Mexico Department of Health protocols to notify those who have been in contact with the individual who tested positive.

“Testing, coupled with strong, timely contact tracing, can help us keep an eye on this virus and hopefully lessen its spread,” said Lori McKee, executive director of Aggie Health and Wellness Center. “The app will also allow users to self-check for COVID-19 symptoms using CDC’s self-checker and call the Aggie Health Center or the Department of Health to get medical guidance.”

Tran said if people don’t use GPS or wireless, they may register in the university’s online self-check portal at http://ready.nmsu.edu. In addition to self-checking symptoms, faculty, staff, students and visitors may register their location in a building or classroom to record their presence in a particular location at a specific time. That information would allow health officials to notify them about a potential exposure.

NMSU recruited 100 people on campus to beta test the application and so far, the results are good.

“The only way the app can succeed is with buy-in from most of our campus population,” said Enrico Pontelli, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and a Regents professor in computer science. “By demonstrating immediate value in a small, focused community like NMSU, this kind of track-and-trace system could help to keep infection levels low.”

NMSU’s mobile contact tracing application is currently available for iOS users, and may be downloaded by NMSU students, faculty and staff at https://apps.apple.com/us/app/aggie-covid-19/id1525591476, or from the App Store by searching “Aggie-COVID-19.”

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