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Smart, Healthy Communities Initiative

Rokwire

Safer Illinois App Archive

Rokwire’s Safer Illinois app was rolled out to support the University of Illinois comprehensive COVID-19 mitigation program. It was retired in February of 2022. Below, we share its history, features, and impact. 

About Safer Illinois

The Safer Illinois app was developed to help students safely return to campus in the fall of 2020. To reduce the spread of COVID-19 and enable classes to resume, the University developed a cheaper, less invasive saliva test and required mandatory testing for all students, faculty and staff. 

For extensive testing to work, the process needed to be simple and efficient, with technology to support the process. Students and staff needed to know when and where to get tested, how to access their results, and what to do if they tested positive. Building access would be granted for those who had recent, negative test results. The Safer Illinois app was developed to manage the logistics of this mandatory testing. 

Safer Illinois presented students, faculty and staff with a digital version of their COVID-19 health status. Test results from the SHIELD testing program were stored on users’ mobile devices. The app also provided:

  • Virus testing coordination
  • Building access status pass
  • Community health recommendations
  • Proximity-based health exposure notifications

Safer Illinois by the Numbers

49,000 unique users
94% of test results transmitted via the app
3.95 million app sessions
920,000 views of the building entry status
166,000 views of testing locations
26,600 views of health guidelines
25,000 views of health care team page
1,160 digital exposure notifications
Positivity rates: Below 0.5% for 75% of days
Hospitalizations and deaths: 0

App users automatically received results of their COVID-19 tests from testing locations all across campus. Building access was granted or denied based on their most recent test result. A proximity-based exposure notification feature warned users if they had been in significant contact with someone who had recently tested positive. 

The SHIELD testing and Safer Illinois app helped keep the campus community safe and healthy during the pandemic. People who tested positive were notified within 11 hours of testing to begin their period of isolation. Those who had significant exposure to individuals who tested positive were also notified. These efforts helped the campus maintain low positivity rates, with no evidence of spread within classrooms or research laboratories, and no hospitalizations or deaths. 

Other Universities and communities, inspired by the success of the SHIELD testing system, developed their own testing protocols and COVID-19 apps, based on the Safer Illinois app.  

Timeline

  • Early summer, 2020: University announces plans to resume on-campus instruction for fall semester 2020. SHIELD team develops saliva testing method.
  • April 2020: Rokwire team begins development of Safer Illinois app. Code for Safer Illinois app made publicly available for other entities to use.
  • May 2020: Rokwire team solicits feedback from stakeholders and experts on app development, privacy issues
  • July 2020: Rokwire team pilots Safer Illinois app
  • August 15, 2020: Safer Illinois app is deployed for all students, faculty, and staff
  • December 2020: 82.5% of the university population (including those living away from campus) have used the app at least once.
  • Fall 2020: Other organizations begin to develop customized variants of the Safer Illinois app, with the help of service partner Rokmetro.
  • 2021: Dozens of institutions, including universities, high schools, K-12 schools, and large museums such as the Smithsonian develop and launch their own apps, based on the Safer Illinois app.
  • December 2, 2021: The University of Illinois announces that it will be moving the COVID-19 building access status from the Safer Illinois app to the Illinois app.
  • February 2022: The Safer Illinois app is officially retired.

Who developed Safer Illinois?

The Safer Illinois app was developed for the University of Illinois by the Smart, Healthy Communities Initiative, Technology Services, NCSA, and Grainger College of Engineering Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering. Valuable input was contributed by the following collaborators.

Internal collaborators

  • Center for Social and Behavioral Science
  • McKinley Health Center
  • Office of the Provost
  • Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at Illinois
  • Siebel Center for Design
  • Technology Services

External collaborators

  • Inabyte, Inc.
  • Pixo
  • Champaign-Urbana Public Health District
  • OSF Healthcare

Safer Illinois technical reviews

  • Technology Services
  • Task Force on the Security of the COVID-19 Code in Safer Illinois
  • Masooda Bashir (iSchool), Nikita Borisov (ECE), Chieh-Li Chin (administrative support), Jana Diesner (iSchool/NCSA/ITI, Chair), Karrie Karahalios (CS), Robin Kravets (CS), Kirill Levchenko (ECE), Madhusudan Parthasarathy (CS)
  • Security Analysis of Rokwire Exposure Notification and Health Status Card–Andrew Miller (ECE) and CoTracer Team (ECE)
  • Rokwire Data Privacy Advisory Committee
  • Office of University Counsel
  • Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research & Innovation
  • Information Technology Accessibility Initiative
  • Siebel Center for Design

Safer Illinois and Privacy

During early development of the Safer Illinois app, privacy was a key issue. The app was built using a privacy-first approach that protected and stored users’ test results on their phones only. Results were encrypted before being sent to servers. Exposure notification relied on the contract tracing project developed by Apple and Google that combined Bluetooth technology with privacy-preserving cryptography. Users with the exposure notification setting turned on would send encrypted keys to nearby phones with the same setting via Bluetooth. Encrypted keys on both phones were exchanged and saved locally on the phones. Keys older than 14 days were deleted. Whenever there were matches between the encrypted keys of confirmed cases and locally saved keys, the risk score of the user was updated. 

Here are a few ways the Safer App protected privacy:

  • Modifications to the beta version were made to minimize data that was collected and stored.
  • The app stored data related to exposure notifications for the shortest possible period, then deleted it.
  • Users could delete their data at any time from both the app and servers.
  • Safer Illinois would not be mandated. People could choose to get their test results and communicate their building entry status through email or a web-based system instead.
  • People could also opt out of contact tracing and exposure notifications.

Rokwire and the SHIELD team conducted surveys and held online town hall style meetings to get input and address potential concerns from faculty, students, mental health advocates, leaders, and experts in digital privacy. 

Other COVID-19 Apps

Customized variants of Safer Illinois built on the Rokwire platform have been deployed at dozens of institutions, including universities, high schools, K-12 schools, and large museums such as the Smithsonian. Some of these apps are still in use as of 2022. 

Rokmetro, a professional services team that customizes the Rokwire application for other users, helped customize the app. Because the Safer Illinois app was already developed and tested, institutions didn’t have to spend months developing the basic functions. Instead, they could focus on selecting and adapting the capabilities to their unique needs.

University of Nebraska’s Heath Tuttle explained, “The Safer Communities app really saved our bacon. If we had been doing something on our own, we would not have had the functionality, the user experience side figured out. It would have taken us much longer.” By building on top of the Rokwire platform, Nebraska’s Safer Communities app was ready to deploy in record time. Because the app was concurrently being deployed at many institutions, the University of Illinois helped to build a growing community of users who could share advice and troubleshoot together.

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