NIH-funded MD2K Center releases app that alerts user if close contact with COVID-19 cases


Science Highlights
April 13, 2020
Raymond A. MacDougall

Free mContain app for Greater Memphis area also provides crowding alerts for physical distancing

Researchers at the University of Memphis-based Center of Excellence for Mobile Sensor Data-to-Knowledge (MD2K) have introduced a new mobile app that may support physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. MD2K is supported by NIH with a grant administered by the National Institute for Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB).

hand holding mobile device
The mContain mobile app. University of Memphis photo

MD2K launched the new mobile app, called mContain, for download by residents of the greater metropolitan area of Memphis, Tennessee. Once downloaded and installed on a personal mobile device, the mContain app collects location traces and sends notifications to users if they have had a recent encounter with a COVID-19 positive individual.

The app reduces the chance of community transmission by providing an early warning to users who may be at the risk of infection from a COVID-19 positive individual.“Mobile technology can serve an important function in the service of public health, exemplified by the mContain app,” said Tiffani Lash, Ph.D., director of the NIBIB program in Telehealth. “The MD2K Center will acquire novel expertise from deployment of the app locally during this critical period in the global crisis.”

“Authenticity and anonymity were foremost on the mind of MD2K when designing the mContain app,” said principal investigator and MD2K Director Santosh Kumar, Ph.D., the Lillian and Morrie Moss Chair of Excellence Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Memphis. “Unlike other apps that may collect personal information, use a broadcast notification system, or utilize location scraping services, the mContain app does none of these.  When downloaded, the app creates a unique App ID code that is tied to the device – there are no logins, no names, no phone numbers, no email collected.” The app uses anonymous unicast (transmission of information to a single recipient) for all notifications.

The mContain app provides two primary alert services: it can give users crowding information and provide notification to users who have had contact with a COVID-19-positive individual. The crowding alert feature provides information that should encourage social distancing within the community, indicating concentrations of users. The contact alert is expected to anonymously reduce community transmission of the COVID-19 virus and other infectious diseases.

The data necessary to inform the app about positive test results is collected voluntarily. If a user and their COVID-19 test provider both agree to share the results of their test, the app can notify other users about possible exposures to COVID-19. Upon download and consent, the mContain app produces a unique App ID for each device that is shared with the testing agency.  When the test results are generated, the testing agency will first notify the individual of their results; if positive, the agency will submit the results to MD2K using the unique App ID of the individual.  From there, a computer algorithm determines positive contacts for the anonymous App ID and unicasts an alert to other app users who may have come into proximity with the positive individual.  At no time is the specific time or location revealed, only the day(s) of contact.

Deployment of the app has been coordinated with the Memphis/Shelby County COVID-19 Taskforce but is an independent effort by the MD2K Center and University of Memphis. Memphis area residents can download the free mContain app, which is currently available at the mContain website and via the Google Play Store for Android devices; an iOS version for the Apple App Store will be released within the week.

Downloading the app is an additive measure and does not change the public health advice for residents to stay home and socially distance as much as possible. If a resident thinks they have been exposed to COVID-19 and develops a fever and symptoms, such as cough or difficulty breathing, they are still advised to call their healthcare provider for medical advice. They may also call the state or local health department’s public information phone number for guidance. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has assembled a number of steps to take if you think you are sick with COVID-19. This information is available to users of the app.

MD2K is a consortium of 13 universities, headquartered at the University of Memphis. MD2K develops novel mobile technologies to make it easier to gather, analyze, and interpret data from mobile and wearable sensors to reliably quantify physical, biological, behavioral, social, and environmental factors that contribute to health and disease risk.

The MD2K Center of Excellence was established in 2014 via a grant (U54EB020404) administered by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering through the trans-NIH Big Data-to-Knowledge (BD2K) initiative.