ECE is Helping Fight Coronavirus With Computing

By Colbi Edmonds

Boston University ECE Professor Orran Krieger and PI for the Mass Open Cloud (MOC) is part of a team collaborating with the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center (MGHPCC) to create a website that will help the fight against COVID-19. Intel and Red Hat, MOC partners, are also partnering on the effort.

The website, Computing against Covid19, will be used as a forum for groups (e.g., hospitals, local community organizations, researchers) that need help with applications which are being used to fight the pandemic. Those groups will then be put in contact with volunteer computer architects, operators, and developers who may be able to help.

Prospective users can set up an account, submit projects, and identify what skills and knowledge a project will require. At the same time, volunteers can join the effort by identifying their expertise and offered skillset. The website will help match volunteers with projects.

Julie Ma from the MGHPCC along with a team from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and University of New Hampshire played a vital role in quickly setting up the website. The website is still under construction, so it will rapidly evolve in the coming days and weeks. The team is currently focusing on getting a few developers and projects on the site.

According to a ZDNET article, there are other efforts at BU to help fight the coronavirus. ECE Professor Ari Trachtenberg with colleagues from Computer Science, Mayank Varia, and Ran Canetti first published a paper on March 30, 2020 that describes a method for voluntary tracking of cell phones to monitor the virus.

The technology could be implemented through an app. By leveraging short-range broadcast technology (e.g., NFC, Bluetooth, or SSID broadcast in WiFi), the app would send out a randomly-generated ID to neighbors. The ID numbers would consistently change in order to ensure the privacy of each user’s location.

“When a person is tested positive for COVID-19, the person could choose (through the administering medical professional) to voluntarily share their list of random numbers — either their own generated numbers or the numbers that the app observed (we’re considering either scenario) with an authoritative site (e.g., the CDC), that would make the numbers publicly available.” Trachtenberg explains in his blog post.

It would give health experts more guidance on testing and resource allocation while providing individuals with additional information to make decisions regarding testing and self-quarantine. The team is open for feedback and would welcome assistance from health experts to help create the app.

The team’s work is quickly attracting praise from privacy advocates. Ben Dickson highlights the research in TechTalks whose audience includes 65 thousand tech experts per month. In How to track COVID-19 without invading privacy he writes: “the work of Boston University’s researchers provides a glimmer of hope that we don’t need to live in a world where health will come at the cost of privacy.”

COVID-19 continues to shape the workplace as social distancing measures are implemented to keep the pandemic at bay. Various technologies, such as cell phone apps and wearables, may be used to monitor such social distancing. However, without specific privacy protection, these technologies have the potential to leak personal employee information to an employer. Trachtenberg’s recently published article “Workplaces are turning to devices to monitor social distancing, but does the tech respect privacy?”, looks at the effect of social distancing technology on employee privacy in the workplace.