A Ball State University professor has engineered software for a new COVID-19 early warning system that could revolutionize the battle against pandemics.

Working with researchers at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), Chris Davison engineered software for the system, called TIPPERS.

“By using Wi-Fi connectivity with a mobile device, we can monitor adherence to social distancing and to crowded spaces,” said Davison, an associate professor of computer technology. “We’ve developed a system to alert people to the location of an infected person — also known as a hot spot. Your mobile device would receive a message, alerting you when you near an area with an infected person or an area that is too crowded and isn’t safe.

“The system is a way to warn people if they might have been exposed to someone who has been infected,” he said. “It also allows organizations to monitor their social distancing policies throughout a building, including everything from a large conference room to an office.”

The passive monitoring system collects zero private information of an individual and explicitly seeks individuals’ permission to collect and use their location data, said Davison, a professor in the Center for Information and Communication Sciences in the College of Communication, Information, and Media at Ball State.

Davison was brought into the project as a former faculty member at UCI familiar with the university’s Testbed for Internet of Things-Based Privacy-Preserving Pervasive Spaces project of TIPPERS. The system uses various types of sensors to make it easier to keep track of occupancy in different parts of a building while explicitly seeking individuals’ permission to collect and use their location data.

“My old boss at UCI knew I was into privacy and privacy research and he roped me into this project three years ago,” he said. “First, we started working on a military project funded by the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. We studied privacy issues smart buildings equipped with technologies to control access, energy usage and other services.”

Davison, who joined Ball State’s faculty in 2015, said the system is also being tested by the U.S Navy through the Department of Defense. The mobile application woks on various Android and iOS mobile devices and a variety of smart phones.

“In the Navy’s tests, sailors are quickly told when an infected person moves from one area—or bubble—to another,” he said. “The alert would tell you to stay away from pier 13 because it is a contaminated space.”

He noted that last summer, the system was 100 percent accurate at successfully monitoring six-foot guidelines for physical distancing during the pandemic as established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The U.S. Navy tested the mobile system in 2019 and then revised it to include COVID-19 in 2020.

“We aren’t the only system being considered, but it’s a major step for us,” Davison said. “UCI has put the monitoring system into several of its buildings, and other universities are looking at it. It may be too late to influence this pandemic on a national scale, but the next one will be sure to come. We have to be prepared.”

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