AMHERST, Mass. – Researchers at the Center for Smart and Connected Society at the University of Massachusetts Amherst recently released a new digital contact-tracing technique that is based on widely-deployed WiFi technology. They intend the open-source software tool and user manual to help universities and colleges deploy campus contact-tracing as students return under special pandemic management rules this fall.
The project is led by the center’s director, Prashant Shenoy, a professor and associate dean of the College of Information and Computer Sciences. His doctoral student Amee Trivedi created “WiFiTrace” as part of her Ph.D. thesis work. The project also had support from Peter Reinhart, director of UMass Amherst’s Institute for Applied Life Sciences.
Public health planners at UMass Amherst are very interested in the software and they are exploring how it may be used in the future to enhance contact-tracing capabilities.
As Shenoy explains, “Unlike Bluetooth-based approaches that require a critical mass of adoption to be effective, WiFi-based contact tracing can be easily deployed by health professionals at universities using our software.” He and Trivedi say they paid very careful attention during WiFiTrace’s development to privacy concerns, so data remains anonymous until people seeking health care provide consent for it to be used.
Shenoy explains that for security reasons such as countering cyber-attacks or network hackers, for example, many colleges and universities already use a campus WiFi network that logs anonymized data on device use. For WiFiTrace use by health professionals, a person who reports to a campus health clinic or a physician that they have become sick may be asked for permission to trace their movements for a period leading up to their illness.
Shenoy points out, “It has always been done with manual methods and interviews until now. We are offering health professionals an additional source of information, that is, what you can get from WiFi logs. People must give permission to search those logs to trace them.” The new software only applies to very specific situations and is entirely confidential and voluntary, he adds.
Trivedi recalls how this idea began in 2016 when she and Shenoy, an expert in how artificial intelligence and machine learning can support energy sustainability, began a project for her doctoral work exploring the use of WiFi data logs for building occupancy detection. The idea was to help managers program heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems to save energy and provide user comfort.
“Since then we’ve had a meningitis outbreak and a couple of flu seasons, so we began learning how to use WiFi log data to track an outbreak,” she notes. “As universities move forward with fall reopening this year, the ability to perform contact tracing we hope will be a useful tool for health professionals to manage the early spread of COVID-19 on college campuses.”
Trivedi’s ongoing research at UMass Amherst’s College of Information and Computer Sciences focuses on understanding human and device mobility dynamics with applications to health. She points out that “WiFiTrace” is complementary to bluetooth and not meant to replace it. WiFi systems “work on the network side,” she explains, so users do not need to install apps or take any special actions. By contrast, bluetooth requires a user to install apps on their smartphone and go through a series of approvals to use it. Bluetooth apps also tend to drain the battery quickly, she notes.
Thumbnail: Image layout: Medium images in right columnGateway Headline: UMass Amherst Computer Scientists Offer WiFi-Based Contact-Tracing Software for National Campus UseNewsletter Headline: UMass Amherst Computer Scientists Offer WiFi-Based Contact-Tracing Software for National Campus UseTag Review: Needs reviewNewsletter Teaser:
Researchers at the Center for Smart and Connected Society at UMass recently released a new digital contact-tracing technique that is based on widely-deployed WiFi technology. They intend the open-source software tool and user manual to help universities and colleges deploy campus contact-tracing as students return under special pandemic management rules this fall.Related Tags: