Contact-tracing app NOVID uses the ‘6 degrees of COVID-19’
A new app called NOVID aims to tell you how close COVID is to you — not geographically, but socially — using the idea of the “six degrees of separation.”
Developed by a math professor and U.S. Math Olympiad team coach Po-Shen Loh, the free app lets users see the disease get progressively closer to their social group.
When you spend some time physically close to someone else who has the NOVID app, the phone logs that as a relationship. Without seeing people’s names, you can see COVID-19 affect people six or seven relationships away from you, and can then see if the infection starts getting closer to you.
“I have a positive person maybe eight people away from me — eight means maybe I live with someone, and that person has a coworker, and that coworker lives with someone, and that person has a coworker who has a kid … it’s like the six degrees of Kevin Bacon,” Loh said.
As the disease starts to gets fewer degrees away from you, you can start taking extra precautions so you never come into contact with it.
“If you see it go seven, six, five, four, at that point, you start to say, ‘I think I’m going to work from home, I think I’m going to wear two masks when I go outside, I think I’m going to stay 12 feet away from people,'” Loh said. “And by the way, that’s what’s going to save America.”
Loh said he designed the app to be a kind of “COVID weather radar,” so a person can see coronavirus get closer like you’d see the rain coming in during a weather report. At that point, you can take preemptive action — much like you’d take a jacket or umbrella with you if you saw rain in the forecast.
People who test positive anonymously log themselves as a confirmed case. This is verified by county health districts through a nameless ticketing system, in which NOVID provides county health departments with special authorization numbers, and local governments pass on those numbers to people who test positive.
This system is designed to prevent false reporting while still keeping people’s identities private. Loh said that knowing the name of someone who has contracted the virus is not as important as knowing how close they may be to you.
“I’ve now found out that someone has tested positive who is seven relationships away from me. Do I know who it is? No. But that doesn’t matter,” Loh said. “What’s important is that today it’s seven relationships, maybe that person got someone else sick, … a little while later I look and it looks like it’s six away from me.”
He added that while other contact tracing apps are focused on protecting others from you, NOVID is designed to primarily protect you from others.
This comes at a time when phone scammers in Washington state are posing as contact tracers to get people’s private information. Loh said he doesn’t believe having a private company like NOVID in the tracing effort will exacerbate this problem because NOVID has no intention of replacing government contact tracers, or doing the same jobs. Instead, NOVID sees itself as helping alongside the effort.
To learn more about how NOVID works, visit the app’s official site.