As students, faculty, and staff prepare to return to campus for the fall semester, a key concern is making the university as safe as possible and properly tracking health data to prevent outbreaks. An interdisciplinary team of researchers and students, including Texas Computer Science (TXCS) undergraduate students Rohit Neppali, Anshul Modh, Viren Velacheri, and Ph.D. student Anibal Heinsfeld, developed the Protect Texas Together app to help track and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on the Forty Acres.
When asked about his motivation for joining the project, Heinsfled said that what appealed to him was “the possibility of providing a useful resource for our UT community in these difficult times, together with the challenge of developing a scalable and helpful platform ready for this fall.” He added, “what kept my enthusiasm was the constant mindset of data privacy: every feature needed to be scrutinized and tested to guarantee that the user data was reasonably private.”
Modh echoed this sentiment, stating that the developers wanted to design an app that would be beneficial without infrinign on user’s privacy. “One of the long-term goals of this initiative is to enable research in the future from the anonymous data that we gather to help guide us in future pandemics if they arise. Our data-driven society is constantly adapting to solve new problems but with the increasing value and power that data holds in our modern world, the privacy and security risks grow,” he said.
The voluntary app is accessible to anyone with a UT EID and allows users to gain a comprehensive view of their symptoms and see who they have been in contact with. Features of the Protect Texas Together app include symptom surveys, contact tracing, and campus room check-ins, among others.
The University of Texas’ Whole Communities–Whole Health grand challenge team helped design and lead the development process. Established in 2016, the group focuses on using technologies to improve the wellbeing of communities. From the website: “Our communities are becoming increasingly diverse just as we have developed the unprecedented technological ability to study health and human behavior. The things we can learn and the ways we can use that knowledge to help people thrive are revolutionary.”
Protect Texas Together is one of many methods the university is using to help minimize the risk of catching COVID-19 on campus. The university is also implementing social distancing guidelines, reducing building capacities, and face mask policies.