Handy health habit

KU adopts alumnus’ monitoring app to curb COVID spread on campus

Rock Chalk Review | CVkey
Photo by Steve Puppe

Among the tools the University is using to help encourage a safe start to the fall semester is a new mobile health app developed by Google Earth co-founder and School of Engineering professor Brian McClendon, e’86.

Rock Chalk Review | CVkey

After confirming personal health status, CVKey app users access an entry code specific to each campus building, which is then scanned at entryway kiosks.

Called CVKey, the app is a COVID-19 symptom checker that prompts people to assess their own health every day by answering a series of questions about their physical symptoms, travel history and known exposure to the virus. Based on their answers, users are assigned a health status, which only they can see; they then use the app to generate a unique QR code to check in as they enter campus buildings. Students, faculty and staff members will scan the QR code from their smartphones at iPad kiosks inside the entrance of nearly all academic buildings to show that they meet the building’s entrance requirements—without revealing personal health information.

Anonymity was designed into the app and is essential to its acceptance, according to McClendon, who in testimony before Congress this summer noted that concerns about personal privacy helped derail efforts in other states to use GPS-enabled contact tracing apps to curb the spread of the
disease. CVKey does not support location tracking or contact tracing, and data is stored only on the user’s phone. 

“A lot of places, certainly the ones you read about in China, you give up all your privacy and you’re at the mercy of the government,” says McClendon, research professor in electrical engineering and computer science. “We know that doesn’t fly in the United States. We thought doing health checks effectively for people before entering a building was going to be important, so we tried to figure out how to do that in a way that you can carry it around with you and attest to your status without giving up private information.” 

Developers put lots of work into designing a system that does not leak data or allow people to be tracked. And because users can complete the questionnaire at home, they know whether or not they meet building requirements before leaving.

“If I don’t meet a building’s requirements, I don’t generate a QR code,” McClendon says. “In that case, don’t leave home; you’re not getting in the building. That’s a much better message than getting rejected at the door.”

The app also allows policy communications from local and University health officials specific to a person’s health status and the COVID-19 statistics of the community. KU students who indicate symptoms, for example, get an early warning that they may be showing signs of the disease, along with a recommendation to call Watkins Health Services to discuss next steps, including possible need for treatment or testing. Those who generate a blue health status, indicating no known risk factors from COVID-19, get a reminder of recommended social distancing protocols, preventive measures like wearing a mask, a web link to CDC guidelines and a reminder to check symptoms every day. KU administrators can use the app to communicate and manage COVID-19 protocols as conditions change, and the app is updated frequently with the latest CDC guidelines on the disease.

KU tested the system at six buildings over the summer, generating more than 500 scans each day and allowing researchers and staff to return to campus labs starting in June. McClendon estimates that the system could generate as many as 100,000 scans a day during peak use in 266 campus buildings. At that scale, it’s not affordable to hire monitors to do the scanning, so iPad kiosks will be used. McClendon says that by the end of September, kiosks will be updated with a feature that can confirm that all app users are wearing a mask when they complete their check-in.

Kiosks, of course, can’t stop someone from entering a building or skipping the scanning process entirely. And because it is primarily a symptom checker, the app won’t flag asymptomatic cases. Other requirements—such as a mask mandate—are in place to address some of those issues. CVKey’s main role is to keep COVID top of mind for everyone every day.

“At end of day this is an honor system and not everybody will be honest,” McClendon notes. “But more people will be honest when they are reminded to be honest, and when they are reminded to think about COVID. It’s tied to the Protect KU Pledge, which students are being asked to read and follow.”

The pledge reminds students, faculty and staff of their responsibility to themselves and others and reminds all members of the KU community to wear a mask, practice physical distancing, wash and sanitize their hands and workspaces, and conduct daily personal health screenings—which is where CVKey comes in.

“Limiting access to the buildings is secondary,” McClendon says. “It’s almost entirely to remind people to think about COVID every day and maybe we’ll all behave a bit better.” 

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