When the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign shut down its campus in spring 2020, administrators immediately started planning for a safe return to in-person classes in the fall. Consulting the university’s epidemiologists, biophysicists and experts in digital infrastructure, they worked through the spring and summer to develop a plan.
One of the university’s major tools it implemented in the fall was the Safer Illinois app, which helps students, faculty and staff register for COVID-19 tests, receive results and access campus buildings, among other functions. The app was so successful that it was further developed into the Safer Community app, an offshoot of UIUC’s app that the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and other universities around the country have adopted this semester.
William Sullivan, a professor of landscape architecture at UIUC, led the team that developed the Safer Illinois app. Since 1992, he said his focus at the university has been on how to create healthier cities.
In 2018, Sullivan was approached by UIUC’s provost to direct ROKWIRE, an initiative at the university with the goal of developing an open-source platform for mobile devices to contribute to smart, healthy communities. When the pandemic hit, Sullivan and his ROKWIRE team had just finished developing the platform they were going to use to build an app for UIUC students called the Illinois App.
“When campus closed down, we put our heads together and we decided, ‘Gosh, why don't we take advantage of this platform that we built and build a COVID-19 set of functions on top of it?’” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said a major concern the UIUC community had about the app was privacy. The ROKWIRE team spoke with many stakeholders at the university to present its ideas about the app’s functionality and receive feedback on how to alleviate privacy concerns.
“Anytime you start talking about how you can use a digital tool that people carry around with them all the time to help solve these kinds of public health related issues, it just freaks people out, in a very healthy way,” he said. “There's a lot of reasonable concerns about privacy, about data security, about consent and who is using the data for what purposes.”
The team decided it was crucial to give community members an alternative option to the app, so a separate team developed a COVID-19 Boarding Pass system, where students could print out their testing results instead of displaying them on their phone.
Sullivan said only about 11% of the campus used the Boarding Pass system when the fall semester started, and that number decreased as community members grew more comfortable with using the Safer Illinois app.
“I don't think there's another COVID app in the world that has a higher percentage of users from the user population it was designed for than Safer Illinois,” he said.
With the success of Safer Illinois, a separate company at UIUC called ROKMETRO took over development for a wider audience, which eventually led to the Safer Community app. According to Sullivan, ROKMETRO took the open-source code from ROKWIRE and Safer Illinois and spent several months conceptualizing how to make it work in different communities with different electronic medical record systems.
ROKMETRO could not be reached for comment on this story.
The coding and functionality of Safer Community is almost entirely identical to Safer Illinois, according to Sullivan. The main differences between the two come from the apps’ branding and where the data is controlled. Safer Illinois’s data runs through Amazon servers that are controlled by UIUC, while Safer Community’s data runs through Amazon servers controlled by ROKMETRO.
Deb Fiddelke, UNL’s chief communications and marketing officer, said implementation of the app has gone smoothly this semester. UNL’s Information Technology Services team has been working with ROKMETRO to make any necessary small adjustments.
“A newly developed app is never perfect, and we've had to make changes like we just did out in the third round of testing and then have it essentially go on pause after you've completed your third round, and we've been able to do that,” Fiddelke said. “No brand new app is without little hiccups.”
Fiddelke said ROKMETRO is working with UNL and at least one other Big Ten institution for the app. Other universities around the country using the app include the University of Maine and Vanderbilt University.
As the app continues to grow its users, Sullivan said he feels honored that the work of his team is being utilized by other campuses around the country, helping to keep communities safe in an unprecedented learning environment.
“One of the things that we're so committed to here at Illinois is an open-source platform, and what it means when Nebraska adopts it and uses it is that there's a whole set of people who are bright, innovative, hardworking folks who are using the app,” Sullivan said. “This broader use means that we're very likely to get better ideas about how to improve it, which in turn will result in better performance of the app and the capacity to create healthier places all over the place.”