NOVID, an organization that branches off of the social enterprise Expii, was founded by Carnegie Mellon University mathematics professor Po-Shen Loh, who had made a moral commitment to apply his expertise to national emergencies. On March 14, he was called upon to help the nation during the pandemic. Using his expertise in network theory, Loh developed the NOVID app, a novel tool to help limit the transmission of the coronavirus (COVID-19). Loh announced the approval of the app on iOS and Android this May.
In an interview with The News-Letter, Loh explained the rationale behind his contact tracing app.
“One of the parts of COVID-19 that’s so bad is it spreads before you know you have it,” Loh said. “How do we find a way to reduce the spread if it’s spreading invisibly? That’s how the idea for building the network came in.”
NOVID users self-report positive COVID-19 cases, which can be verified by testing centers to provide the most accurate data. The app then alerts everyone who has spent 15 minutes within nine feet of an infected individual during the time they were contagious.
However, the novelty of NOVID is that it allows the user to visualize the proximity of COVID-19 infected individuals through their interactions (up to the 12th degree). It represents the routes of transmission of the virus through a visual representation of COVID-19 cases within their networks.
While traditional contact tracing apps focus on the idea of protecting others from yourself, NOVID creates a tool designed to protect yourself from others.
“Our app is designed to make it so that if COVID is getting close to you, you get more careful,” said Loh. “By doing so, you reduce the spread of COVID.”
The NOVID team believes this more individualistic incentive will draw more people to the app and encourage them to act responsibly during the pandemic.
Another novelty of the app is its use of a combination of Bluetooth and microphone capabilities to generate a distance measurement that allows the accurate tracking of users’ interactions. According to Macy Hyland, the head of outreach for NOVID, most other contact tracing apps rely solely on either GPS or Bluetooth.
GPS is unable to provide a precise enough location to track movement through buildings, and Bluetooth poses a similar problem because devices can connect via Bluetooth through walls, which is not an accurate method for determining interactions for contact tracing.
Hylan noted that NOVID uses ultrasound to detect devices within the same room and accurately measure the distance between them.
“We are the only solution in the world that can actually provide distance measurements with the accuracy needed for contact tracing,” Hyland said.
Not using GPS to contact trace also has the added benefit of protecting users’ privacy, as the NOVID team highly values anonymity. Loh explained that every feature added to the app is first screened to ensure maximum privacy for the user.
“Who cares who they are or where they live?” Loh said. “What really matters is the structure of the spread that’s going on in the network.”
The creators of the app hope the tool will be used as a supplement to contact tracing during a time where contact tracers are quickly overwhelmed.
“Our goal is to lighten the load of manual contact tracers so that you don’t see outbreaks in the first place,” Hyland said.
NOVID is also offering universities and businesses the ability to create virtual communities within the app to track the spread of COVID-19 within their organizations and make informed decisions that optimize the health of their members. This paid platform has all of the basic functions of NOVID and enables universities to anonymously trace COVID-19 infections within their community.
The NOVID team has recruited campus ambassadors to help promote the app. Deepa Ravindra, a rising junior at Hopkins, joined the NOVID team to contribute to the nation’s COVID-19 efforts.
“As a campus ambassador, we’re responsible for being a liaison between NOVID and JHU,” Ravindra wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “Our main goal is to get the word out and raise awareness about NOVID, amongst Hopkins students, faculty, administration, and the greater Baltimore community.”
Ravindra hopes to see a wide implementation of NOVID at Hopkins so that those on campus can prioritize their health.
Rising junior Nora Khalil, another campus ambassador for NOVID, explained that she has been using NOVID to help her and her friends stay safe.
“When everyone uses the NOVID app correctly, it tells us how close we are to the virus,” Khalil wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “I hope it will help people make informed decisions on whether or not they should stay home or not be in contact with certain people so they could stay as safe as they possibly can.”
The NOVID team hopes to see their app implemented around the world to end the COVID-19 pandemic. Loh recognizes the complexity of the pandemic and the need for a multidisciplinary solution.
“One of my goals is to bridge the world of mathematics and blend it with public health, epidemiology and virology,” Loh said. “We feel that if you combine mathematics and technology with public health, we actually can solve this problem.”
The NOVID team intends to continue to modify their app and add capabilities until they have created a system that is the backbone of the nation’s ability to end the pandemic. But their plans don’t stop there.
“What we intend to do as we get rid of COVID-19 is learn how you might control all kinds of other infectious diseases,” Loh said. “We ideally will be able to use similar technology to work on tuberculosis.”
According to Loh, NOVID has the potential to impact millions of lives across the nation. The team’s motivation stems from their passion for helping people. Their goal is simply to provide a tool people can use to protect themselves and their loved ones.
“There will be another swine flu, another avian flu,” Loh said. “We hope that the next time around, the whole world will be prepared.”