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HKUST Develops App that Maps COVID-19 Hotspots

Image Credits: HKUST, Press Release

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) has launched CovidInArea, a privacy-preserving mobile-friendly app which integrates and visualizes open data. It includes a list of buildings visited by cases who have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 virus in the past 14 days (hereinafter referred to as “incident places”), from the Department of Health (DoH) of the HKSAR Government as an easily accessible heatmap, providing a free location-based tool for users to understand their risk due to proximity with the incident places.

Making use of big data mining and machine learning techniques, a team led by Prof. Gary CHAN Shueng-Han from the Department of Computer Science and Engineering has designed and developed the app, which consists of a real-time heatmap for browsing the locations of the incident places at a glance.

Unlike other existing platforms and apps which mostly require users to check the locations manually, CovidInArea runs the check automatically by providing real-time GPS support for mobile users. It is the first public COVID-19-related app available in both Google Play Store and Apple App Store developed by a university for city-wide use anywhere in Hong Kong.

The heatmap pinpoints incident places given by DoH, based on data updated continuously as per the government’s related daily information release. By zooming in and out on the heatmap, users can immediately gain a complete picture of the incident places, which are indicated by hues of different temperatures, hence able to make informed decisions in their daily routine, path planning and keep safe distancing.

User privacy is ensured in CovidInArea, which requires no user registration and collects no personal information beyond GPS location.  All computations are carried out with results presented locally on the user’s phone, while the GPS location, once consumed, is immediately discarded without storage at any time.

In addition, with GPS on, users are enabled to easily visualise in a chart – over several days – the number of incidents placed in their proximity in real-time. Taking into consideration the distance, users’ dwell time, and number of places of incidence in proximity, the app also indicates the overall proximity risk using a colour radar chart:

  • Red: Overall high sustained contact with incident places. Recommended to reduce high-risk places, manage health and take voluntary testing if needed.
  • Yellow:Medium risk. Be cautious. Plan safe paths to reduce risk.
  • Green:Low risk. Stay vigilant.

Prof. Gary Chan stated that because the number of confirmed cases in Hong Kong has remained high as of late, the app provides a timely and user-friendly reference on incident places to help citizens stay vigilant of their surroundings and take precautions if necessary to proactively reduce the infection risk while commuting.

He added that with CovidInArea, users can take appropriate actions to plan daily routes, manage their health, and keep a safe distance from the incident places. The professor also thanked the government for opening up the data for public use to fight against COVID-19 together.

Prof. Gary CHAN Shueng-Han is an expert in the development of novel and precise sensing and positioning technologies for smart applications. The government has worked alongside him to develop a geofencing technology applied in the StayHomeSafe app to enforce local home quarantine orders. He has also innovated a privacy-preserving mobile app that senses registered Bluetooth signals to efficiently search for missing dementia patients in the city. His indoor navigation technology has also been deployed in many malls and venues.

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