UNO students team with UNMC, Apple Inc. to develop COVID-19 app
It starts with an email notification.
An interesting opportunity. Care to hop on a conference call to discuss?
The three University of Nebraska at Omaha students are intrigued.
On the phone, the pitch goes like this:
Would you like to build a groundbreaking mobile application with considerable value as a public health tool? It’ll involve collaborating with two teams.
The first is the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Global Center for Health Security, which is rapidly working to quell an unprecedented global health crisis and is also home to the nation’s only federal quarantine unit. The other is Apple Inc.
With the COVID-19 pandemic having recently arrived in Nebraska, spring break has come early.
No need to juggle coursework.
The students quickly agree.
Work begins immediately. Prototyping and wireframing and coding. Analysis and dialogue and refinement. Daily meetings stretch into the pre-dawn hours as each team navigates hunger — the UNMC team subsisted on takeout curry — exhaustion and multiple time zones.
As news segments turn some of their peers infamous during imprudent trips to warmer regions, Keegan Brown, Grayson Stanton and Carly Cameron spend their spring break tucked away in a design studio, maintaining 6 feet of separation and working in conjunction with experts in the fields of medicine and technology.
Less than three weeks later, 1-Check COVID was available in the Apple App Store and was downloaded more than 10,000 times in the first 10 days. The app is now also available on Google Play for Android phone users.
1-Check COVID is a risk-assessment tool that asks the user a series of questions ranging from biographical to geographical before inquiring about symptoms. All are computed in an effort to assess the likelihood of someone having contracted COVID-19. Once the questions are completed, users learn their risk levels: low, urgent or emergent. From there, they are guided toward subsequent steps, whether to continue to monitor their symptoms or contact the public health department. If users agree, they can share their risk profiles with health care professionals, employers and family members, among others.
“This will hopefully be lifesaving,” UNO and UNMC Chancellor Jeffrey P. Gold, M.D., said in a news release, which names the three Scott Scholars, who are all Nebraska natives, computer science majors and underclassmen. Cameron, the oldest of the trio, was 2 years old when the SARS outbreak occurred. She doesn’t remember it.
In a time of crisis, both UNMC and Apple have bet on youth. And youth has delivered.
“What these students did is nothing short of extraordinary,” said Harnoor Singh, director of student development for the Walter Scott, Jr. Scholarship Program (Scott Scholars), which was launched in 1997, thanks to the generous support of the Suzanne & Walter Scott Foundation. The program challenges high-achieving engineering and information science and technology students to develop their technical, creative and leadership skills.
“These are the students we’ve been waiting for,” Singh added.
As a Ph.D. candidate at UNMC, Thang Nguyen is researching and developing decision-support tools. An innovator at heart, Nguyen had built one such tool focused on strep throat analysis “as a launching-off point,” he said.
Then came a pandemic. And an opportunity.
With an understanding of how to parse the literature, decode and translate information into a language that coders can comprehend, Nguyen pivoted to the issue at hand, using the same logic that was already built.
“A lot of what we do is identify problems as they come up and try to just solve in a rapid manner,” said Michael Wadman, M.D., chair of the UNMC Department of Emergency Medicine, “so I think that’s kind of our mindset when we approach any problem.”
A relationship between Scott Scholars and Apple Inc. formed after UNO students took part in a summerlong workshop called AppJam, which included a trip to the tech giant’s California campus. Gold reached out to Singh to see if a partnership could be struck between the three teams.
After the Scott Scholars, UNMC and Apple began working together, Nguyen said the students’ focus and attention to detail stuck out.
“When you cross from the clinical side to the technical, there’s a lot of language that gets lost,” he said. “There was none of that with this team. Those are special students in a very high-functioning program. I don’t know if you see that in too many places.”
Apple representatives helped the teams troubleshoot bugs and fast-track the app for development.
“Sometimes it takes several weeks just to get approval through the App Store,” Singh said, noting that his team needed all of two weeks and five days to bring the project to the public.
“It has the potential to save so many lives,” he said, “to not only allow folks to assess their risk, but also decrease the pressure on emergency rooms and urgent care clinics.
“Sometimes the universe brings people together. Personally, I couldn’t be more proud of our students. I don’t know how many times I heard Apple executives say, ‘This has never been done before.’
“A public health crisis like this has the ability to leverage human talent to create radically innovative solutions. We took a group of high achievers and placed them in a learning environment that emphasizes human-centered design and were very intentional with teaching them how to navigate ambiguity and how to become comfortable with failure. These are all elements that they’ve learned in the Scott Scholars program.”
UNO Professor Examines Loneliness
In 2019, researchers and the media began sounding alarm bells about a “loneliness epidemic” — a rise in people reporting feelings of isolation that could become a health crisis, leading to increases in heart disease or even shorter life spans.
And that was before COVID-19. Before the world shut itself indoors and government leaders mandated, and pleaded, for everyone to stay at least 6 feet apart.
Isolation and social distancing are terms the world is all too familiar with now.
“I have, for years, been trying to come up with ways to make people more aware,” said Todd Richardson, Ph.D., an associate professor in the University of Nebraska at Omaha Goodrich Scholarship Program who is researching loneliness. “And then this comes around and does it for me.”
What researchers like Richardson have warned of — fraying social connections and the ways people arrange their lives to perpetuate isolation — rocketed to the world’s collective consciousness as COVID-19 spread rapidly across the globe. As cities, states and countries shut down, everyone felt the pain of isolation. People kept friends and family members at bay. They missed play dates, barbecues, birthday parties and graduation ceremonies. They missed the rush and roar of live music, the shared excitement of home runs and 3-pointers. They wondered if the “sea of red” would ever wash over Memorial Stadium in quite the same way.
And everyone felt those things, together.
“It’s ironic that the experience of loneliness unites us, but I think it can in this moment,” said Richardson. “We’re all under threat from something that doesn’t discriminate between human beings. This is an extra-human threat. So we can bond as humans and realize we’re working together in order to resist this. And I think there’s something really, really beautiful in that.”
But there’s a flip side to that potential beauty. The longer people stay apart, the harder it becomes to return to one another.
“There is a period where you acknowledge the loss in your life, and you lament it, and you try and fill it in whatever way you can,” Richardson said. “But the longer you’re away from other people, the less trust you have for other people, so the harder it gets to break out and to reach out. And at that point, loneliness starts feeding in on itself. It becomes a self-perpetuating kind of cycle.”
Richardson said social interaction influences people in ways they’re not even aware of. Seeing another person express emotions, such as joy and pain, sparks a mirror response in the brain.
“The mere fact of making eye contact with them, or being in the same physical space as them, connects us to them in important ways,” he said. “It makes us acknowledge them as people, as fellow humans, as entities worthy of respect and autonomy.”
Fundamentally, Richardson said, it teaches people empathy.
“The longer we retreat from one another,” he said, “the longer we don’t share that physical space, the less empathetic we get, and the less we care about other people.”
There is also risk in social interaction, and humans are inherently risk-averse, Richardson said. People may want to avoid not just the risk of disease, but the risk of shame, embarrassment or rejection that comes with putting themselves out there in the world. The longer people stay protected, the more comfortable they may become.
“I think that when this abates, we’re going to have a lot of work ahead of us reacclimating and coming to terms with the fact that we need one another,” he said, “and that is worth the risks that we take.”