WU encourages students to use new smartphone contact tracing service developed at WUSM

Trey Sharp | Contributing Reporter
On a tan background, a drawing of the outline of an arm holds a phone displaying a red and white logo with "MO" written on itBrian Cui | Student Life

Washington University is beginning to encourage the use of MO/Notify, a free COVID-19 exposure notification service for students, faculty and staff, but rollout has been slow.

The service, which is accessible either through the “Exposure Notifications” setting on iPhones or as an app for Android devices, was developed by scientists at the Institute of Informatics at the Washington University School of Medicine and launched at the end of July.

The service works by utilizing the Bluetooth technology in smartphones. When two phones with MO/Notify come within six feet of one another, they exchange randomly generated, anonymous codes which are stored on the phones for 14 days. If a person using MO/Notify reports a positive COVID-19 test, then any phone which has previously stored a code associated with the COVID-positive individual will be alerted that they have possibly been exposed.

MO/Notify may sound similar to traditional contact tracing, but Washington University School of Medicine Associate Dean for Health Information and Data Science Dr. Philip Payne explained there are unique advantages to the service. He said that MO/Notify could transform contact tracing which “took days before” into a process that takes “minutes and hours.”

“We had this opportunity to work with Google and Apple to build a mobile solution to accelerate that type of contact tracing,” Payne said. “And that’s where MO/Notify comes in, because MO/Notify takes that process that was manual and makes it automated, but it also automates it in a way that is purposely built to maintain the privacy of the people who use it and, quite honestly, traditional contact tracing doesn’t do that.”

MO/Notify was completely new to many students. Of 20 students interviewed on the Danforth Campus, only one recognized the name MO/Notify. Graduate student Fateme Mohseni said that she “saw it in the email,” but then forgot to look into the service more.

“I forgot to search more and find [out] what it is,” Mohseni said. “I was not sure if they [were talking] about the future, that they want to have these things for us or [that] we can already use it.”

Most students were unaware of the service yet expressed enthusiasm about its potential benefits. Junior Sam Meiselman said that he had not heard of the service but that “contact tracing seems like an important thing.”

Similarly, senior Hud Bolender said that he had not seen the service anywhere but that it was a “no-brainer.”

“Some people think it’s an invasion of privacy, but I think that as long as it doesn’t go too far… it can be really helpful,” Bolender said. “If we can implement this contract tracing thing I think it’ll be a lot easier to take a lot of pressure off people.”

Laura Swofford, the marketing and communications director for the Office of Health Information and Data Science, acknowledged that advertising for MO/Notify has been limited so far.

“There was an initial story in The Record, and then we’ve been running something every time in the COVID newsletter here on the Medical Campus,” Swofford said. “We’re just getting to the point where we’re getting in our order of MO/Notify masks and we’re distributing thousands of fliers to the testing centers and the residential buildings so we’re starting to get there just now. So I’m not surprised that people haven’t heard of it.”

Payne clarified that it is still early for MO/Notify. “We’re just a couple of weeks in and we have taken a sort of deliberate approach of getting an initial group of users that read those first announcements and making sure that it works for them and then our plan is to keep on scaling up,” Payne said. “Our objectives longer term are to partner with additional organizations throughout the St. Louis Metropolitan Area and then across the state.”

While some students expressed excitement over the implementation of MO/Notify, others were more hesitant. Senior Divya Sharma expressed privacy concerns in regards to the service.

“I already don’t like the fact that my phone tracks my location and I feel like there’s other ways that we can track the virus without needing to have it be your phone,” Sharma said.

Sophomore Brendan Yang said that he would want “transparency on how it works,” before he would participate in the service.

Payne addressed potential concerns regarding privacy, explaining that “[MO/Notify] does not actually track your location. What it tracks is your proximity to other phones.” He added that “all the data is stored on your phone… and every 10 to 14 days, that data is purged from your phone.”

Swofford added that “you already walk around with this technology in your pocket,” and that “it actually does not track your location, which ten thousand things in your pocket are doing… So it won’t tell somebody you got COVID in the DUC.”

Payne’s message to the University community is that everyone needs to do their part in order to get the pandemic under control.

“[MO/Notify is] built to keep everyone safe and to give people the information they need to stay healthy,” he said. “Part of that process is getting everyone to volunteer, to participate, and this is an opportunity when people participate in MO/Notify to contribute to the broader good of the campus and so that’s really what we’re asking everyone to do. It’s good for your own personal health and safety, but it’s good for the health and safety of the campus community [as well].”

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