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Rutgers professors develop application to help track coronavirus transmission

Director of the School of Criminal Justice Master’s Program and Director of the Rutgers Center on Public Security Joel Caplan developed the app with Leslie Kennedy, University Professor in the School of Criminal Justice, to help first responders and frontline workers identify locations where coronavirus disease (COVID-19) infections were taking place. – Photo by Twitter

Two Rutgers faculty members from the School of Criminal Justice recently developed and launched a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) contact-tracing application, called Flatten, aimed at protecting healthcare workers and first responders.

Director of the School of Criminal Justice Master’s Program and Director of the Rutgers Center on Public Security Joel Caplan and University Professor in the School of Criminal Justice Leslie Kennedy both worked together to develop Flatten.

“We started spring 2020 as the pandemic began to spread across the country. We felt that helping first responders and frontline workers to identify locations where infections were taking place would help keep them safe,” they said, according to an interview.

Caplan and Kennedy investigated how a software called risk terrain modeling (RTM) could be adapted and reapplied to track down cases of COVID-19.

RTM software, or RTMx, was originally intended for crime mapping or identifying high-risk locations, according to an article from the New Jersey Business Magazine. The software focuses on pinpointing environmental factors that can explain upticks in criminal behavior. With this information, the app is able to help public safety agencies track crime.

When the pandemic began, Caplan and Kennedy were asked by their partners in Kansas City to use RTMx to track the progression of disease transmission. Caplan said the app works similarly to contact tracing used by epidemiologists, except it focuses on location and travel history as opposed to interactions between people, according to the article. 

“For example, when users update the app with news about their positive test results, their past two weeks of travel history is anonymously mapped with other COVID(-19)-positive travel histories to determine if commonly visited settings share particular features that could pose a spatial risk,” Kennedy said, according to the article. “If a supermarket, for instance, is located in the area, it might mean that an employee is infected and unknowingly spreading the virus. Risk mitigation could include outreach to the business with services and support for employee testing.”

Caplan said the software helps identify places or situations where COVID-19 is more likely to be transmitted, according to the article. 

Although not widely available to the public, the app is open for frontline workers and first responders, such as police, fire, EMS, food delivery, social workers, school teachers and more, to begin use, Caplan and Kennedy said.

They said agencies interested in utilizing the app can request that a “user group” be created for them. The agencies can privately invite users, who are directed to download the app and leave it on, at which point the app will start to anonymously collect and aggregate their data.

After the inception of the app, it took three months of testing until it was ready to be downloaded from the app store, they said.

“The initial idea (led) to conversations about what the app could look like and how it could be used,” they said. “Alpha, then beta versions, were then created and tested internally, and then with external testers. Beta testing feedback led to several rounds of improvements before the final version was ready for launch.”

In the process of creating this app, the two professors said they interacted with potential users to see how to better adapt their app to respond to the needs of professional health workers, such as making sure the app had low battery usage.

“Feedback was used to improve issues regarding the user experience, functionality and privacy,” they said.

In terms of privacy, Caplan and Kennedy said the location information is anonymous and data is automatically deleted after three weeks. 

“Full-transparency of what the app is doing on your phone (is) built right into the user interface. Data collection and analysis built on the risk terrain modeling framework make the app more than just a data collection tool,” they said. “It offers practical information to agency user groups that help them make decisions about how to mitigate risks.”

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