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School of Engineering

Understanding COVID-19 exposure and risk

Friday, November 6, 2020
Human factors engineering MS student Tom Ribeiro and colleagues won first place in two hackathons with their app to help users understand their risk of contracting COVID-19.
App screen on a phone, showing risk factors
A preview of the Covis app. Image courtesy of Tom Ribeiro.

A team of medical professionals, user experience designers, software engineers, researchers, and business experts from across the globe is developing an app that team members hope will help users better understand their personal levels of risk and exposure to COVID-19. The app, called Covis, won first place in two rounds of the MIT COVID-19 Challenge's Beat the Pandemic I and II – virtual hackathons that addressed pressing issues rising from the COVID-19 crisis.

The Covis team, including Tufts School of Engineering graduate student Tom Ribeiro, honed its approach through the two hackathons. While the team originally conceived of an app that would triangulate location with personal medical history to help the user calculate their likelihood of developing COVID-19 immunity, team members moved away from the concept as it became increasingly clear that scientific literature on COVID-19 immunity was inconsistent. Instead, the Covis team chose to focus on exposure and risk.

“Exposure looks at the past and risk looks at the next step a user may take,” says Ribeiro, a second-year student pursuing his MS in human factors engineering. “Where has a user been today, and what potential exposures have they incurred based on mobility and the type of places they’ve been? What risks will they face based on what they want to do next?”

Those are big questions, and the Covis team is asking them in service of an even bigger goal: helping to combat misinformation, fear, and confusion around COVID-19. “One of the opportunities we have with this platform is the ability to let people see the consequences of their actions, for themselves and for others,” says Ribeiro. “If you see a number on a screen, that can be hard to personalize. This personalizes it.”

Covis draws from user reports and from publicly available data, like the times of day when a business is most busy, to help people calculate their personal exposure to COVID-19. It’s a system that works, in principle, similarly to popular GPS app Waze. While Waze provides driving directions that update based on users’ reports of traffic or accidents, Covis could provide updated information based on users reporting factors like a given location's density. In addition to determining where and when they may have been exposed to COVID-19, a user could check the app to calculate the potential risk before deciding to visit a location or pursue an activity.

Covis isn’t intended to be a contact tracing or quarantine app, which have been broadly adopted by some countries to help identify individuals who have been exposed to an infected person and to track compliance with quarantine. Similar apps have not been widely used in the United States. In a June survey, 71% of Americans said they would not download a COVID-19 contact tracing app, primarily due to digital privacy concerns. Rather than focusing on contact tracing or quarantine tracking, the Covis team wanted to help users calculate their personal risk levels and then make informed choices about their daily lives.

While the app is in the testing stages and isn’t currently available for download, the team plans to launch this winter. Ribeiro has brought his experience in human-centered design to bear on the app's user experience  ensuring that the app fully meets users’ needs and is easy and intuitive to use. “I love understanding what people’s problems are and trying to design solutions,” he explains. “It’s something I’ve always been interested in, but I never knew until I was finishing undergrad that there was a field [human factors engineering] that did just that – that you can use creativity and problem-solving to help millions of people.”