Social science research has, historically, required painstaking efforts to find and track populations, using surveys and interviews to gather data about behaviors and attitudes and how they change over time.
An application built by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has automated much of that process while also allowing researchers to target specific questions to subjects at specific moments in time.
Called the Open Dynamic Interaction Network, or ODIN, the app has been used by the Rural Drug Addiction Research Center at UNL to monitor the behavior of drug users, as well as in a pilot study of homeless youths living in Lincoln.
Bilal Khan, a sociologist and computer science engineer at UNL who led development of the ODIN software with funding from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, said the app has been reconfigured to serve a public health purpose in the midst of a global pandemic.
"When the coronavirus happened, we were all sitting at home. We're not out there doing rural drug addiction research because we can't go into the field," he said, "but we have this entire infrastructure and software for the app that could be repurposed to do something pretty fast and relevant to COVID-19."
European countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom earlier this year began exploring using smartphones to perform digital contact tracing or monitoring the potential spread of the virus from person-to-person.
ODIN, which for the last five years has been used to track the movements and interactions of its subjects, was already in place and could quickly scale to assist the statewide and national efforts, Khan said.
The app assigns a random string of characters to a user to serve as their identification number, utilizing a phone's Bluetooth technology to passively scan for other users also running the app in proximity every 10 minutes or so.
The anonymous data is sent to a secured server -- only the ID number and time stamp are needed -- until a user contracts the virus. At that point, a notification would be pushed out to the app on any phone that may have come into contact with the infected person in the previous 14 days.
"We never know your phone number or anything personal about you," Khan said. "We just know you're ID 3000, and we need to tell you you may have come into contact with ID 7 at 4:20 p.m. on a Tuesday. ID 7 has the virus, and now it's up to you what you want to do."
Khan is working with NUtech Ventures, which helps UNL researchers to find business partners.
Unlike tech giants such as Google or Apple, the ODIN software was designed for social science purposes, does not include advertising and won't be sold for a profit -- features Khan says could give it an advantage in a privacy-wary society like the United States.
"No other organization out there can credibly say, 'We built something, and we are not going to get rich from it,'" he said.
Khan said ODIN could also be used to gauge the sentiments of users about a wide range of activities during the pandemic through in-app questions like how confident they are going to public places or what level of financial hardship they are experiencing.
That kind of aggregated data, which could be collected independently should users choose to disable the contact tracing piece of the app, would be beneficial to policymakers in tailoring public health measures, businesses for how they want to reopen to the public, as well as sociologists studying the effects of the pandemic, he said.
It gives users insight into what Khan calls a "health risk budget."
"For me, I think about how is it people are going to cope with the potential stress of deciding to go back to life as normal," he said. "It's going to happen, I imagine. This is insurance that if I put myself in danger, I know that I'm going to be warned about it."
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