NOVID looks to change the course of the pandemic

NOVID, an anonymous COVID-19 exposure network application released by Carnegie Mellon mathematics professor Po Shen Loh in April, is now being used on the Carnegie Mellon campus. The application has also been used in the reopening efforts of Georgia Tech.

Loh had been working on another project of his, a mathematics learning platform called Expii, when he received a call to action from the Hertz Foundation community to help out in the effort to fight against COVID-19. Po Shen Loh is a Hertz Foundation Fellow, a position only awarded to 10 Ph.D candidates per year. In becoming a fellow, he also made the moral commitment to help out if there was ever a national emergency.

"This [commitment] was modeled after wartime," Loh told The Tartan in an interview. "In World War II, the Manhattan Project was involved in ending [the war], and in order to make that work there had to be people who were not only physicists, not only chemists, not only mathematicians, not only engineers, but who could do lots of things."

Loh received the call to action on March 14, "which is Pi day," Loh noted. "On March 14, this group got activated. I got a message from the community, the Foundation community, saying this is not only a national emergency, but it is an international emergency."

Loh was reading a student's paper on network theory when he realized that he could apply those network theory concepts to track the spread of the coronavirus. By creating an anonymous network, he could use an algorithm to analyze the spread of the virus while also allowing the program to deal with less details. "It wouldn't matter who everyone was, you could just send the word, the messages to people farther out," Loh said. "The whole thought was, if I have this network, we can use this to help prevent the spread of the virus."

After doing some quick online research, he found that he could utilize the built-in ultrasound communication functions of smartphones to calculate the distance between one smartphone and another without using GPS coordinates.

While many current exposure notification applications use Bluetooth, Bluetooth is not ideal for calculating distances between devices, as it best operates in a vacuum and is easily absorbed by walls. "I could see that you can't make a Bluetooth app without diverting the laws of physics," Loh said. "And as far as I'm concerned, the laws of physics are kind of hard to get around."

Loh contacted an engineer on Expii to help him, initially thinking the two of them would be able to complete it in a week. Later realizing that he could use some more hands, he reached out on Facebook to ask if anyone was able to help. Many of the current team members were first introduced to NOVID through this Facebook post.

"It's really inspiring to see people work so hard during the day and they work on NOVID all night. They just loved it," said Stephanie Ananth, an iOS developer for NOVID. "I mean, it was also a little intimidating for sure. But it's really cool to work with people who are so passionate and so talented and really hard-working and just good people. It's also really cool seeing that software that I wrote is helping people in the real world."

As NOVID developed, organizations started contacting them to see if it was possible for them to collaborate. Georgia Tech had been interested in developing their own exposure notification app to supplement their manual contact tracing when they heard about NOVID.

"[Developing the app] was originally an open source effort at Georgia Tech," said Alexa Harter, who was one of the people taking the lead in integrating NOVID into the campus. "But there were some limitations with Apple and Google API in terms of what was available. We ended up selecting NOVID because there was a strong alignment in what we wanted and what it would do. We had discussions with different groups on campus, and a huge priority was to have an anonymous application."

Both Carnegie Mellon and Georgia Tech have made NOVID an option, but not mandatory, for students to use on campus.

"Our current efforts are centered around community awareness to garner more users," Jason Maderer told The Tartan in an email. "The greater the network of users downloading the app, the greater its usefulness for everyone."

The NOVID team hopes that NOVID can be spread not only to other parts of the community or the county, but also internationally as a way to fight viruses and infectious diseases.

"An analogy I would like to use [is] if you didn't have headlights and you didn't have streetlights and you're driving around in the night, you'd just crash," Loh said. "That's essentially what it's like with COVID. So if we give everyone headlights, we can prevent these crashes."