Just as the world began to heave a sigh of relief that the worst of the novel coronavirus was over, the virus has mutated into new strains that are even more contagious than the first.  Two of the safety precautions advocated to prevent transmission of the virus—wearing masks and maintaining social distancing—are no longer considered sufficient to guarantee protection from the new virus strains. In that precarious situation, it becomes imperative to find new means of fighting the spread of the disease. Enter CrowdNotifier, a new protocol developed in part at EPFL. It alerts people who attended an event where there was a risk of COVID-19 infection.

In many cases, it is unavoidable to hold meetings in enclosed spaces. Despite the protocols of wearing masks and safe distancing, such events carry the risk of transmission. With CrowdNotifier, it is possible to alert participants in case any of the attendees was a carrier of the virus and later tests positive for COVID-19. The alert is sent to their smartphones through an app. In Switzerland, the protocol works with the NotifyMe Check-in app developed by Ubique, the same company that developed SwissCovid. The app is available for download on both Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store.

NotifyMe has several distinctive features compared to other tracing apps. It works in a decentralized manner on each user’s smartphone, which protects privacy. Neither does it create a centralized database, nor does it store any private information. When a user enters a venue, it is necessary to scan a QR code with the app. That allows the phone to keep an encrypted record of the event sans any private data such as the phone number. If any of the participants at the event turns out to be infectious, the contact tracing features kick in by communicating the details of the event to the organizer. When the organizer uploads a decryption key to a secure server, it is accessed by the app to alert the user to follow isolation and testing processes.

In its test phase, NotifyMe has been deployed at several meeting rooms, classrooms, and cafeterias, and will be subsequently rolled out across the EPFL campus. There is a likelihood of integrating the app with SwissCovid soon.

Matthias Gäumann, Vice President for Operations and president of the operational Covid commission at EPFL, gave further details about the potential impact of NotifyMe:

“NotifyMe will enable us to beef up our COVID-19 protection plan. It will let the students and staff engage in certain activities on-site if they have to while limiting the risk of creating a transmission chain.”