“Launching the next phase of the Everbridge app”: Whitman upgrades contact tracing

Abby Main, Staff Reporter

Like several other colleges, Whitman is using Everbridge software to make wellness checks easy and accessible for those who are studying and working on campus. While the use of the Everbridge app is new to Whitman, Everbridge’s notification system, initially used solely for emergency alerts, was first introduced at Whitman during the 2019-2020 school year.

Senior Director of Communications Gina Ohnstad, as communications lead for Whitman’s Coronavirus Task Force, headed the committee of representatives that chose Everbridge as a notification system for emergency alerts after a six-month search.

“When the coronavirus task force started planning for the fall semester in May, we realized that we would need to utilize contact tracing in order to safely bring back students, faculty and staff to campus,” Ohnstad wrote in an email to The Wire. “At that time we started looking at the companies that were quickly implementing technology in response to new contact tracing demands from customers. In June, we decided to expand our contract with Everbridge to provide several new COVID-related services for the college.” 

According to Ohnstad, the College directed members of the community to download the Everbridge app in August. Whitman’s Health and Safety webpage reports that Everbridge is currently available to members of the campus community. All employees and students coming on to campus must first complete the Daily Wellness Check either through email or the app. The Everbridge app creates a central online space in which to self-report any positive COVID-19 tests, complete daily wellness checks required for those on campus and check-in functions for campus buildings. That list of functions is set to expand in the next week.

“In the coming days, we will be launching the next phase of the Everbridge app, which involves a more accurate and sophisticated approach to contact tracing,” Ohnstad said. “This works using Bluetooth that runs in the background of your phone.”

Without recording a specific location, the app documents any instances of two phones using the Everbridge Bluetooth proximity tracing function coming within six feet of one another. If someone using the app reports a positive COVID-19 case Whitman could notify their recent contacts.

Everbridge published a blog post describing contact tracing methods titled “What is Contact Tracing? Here’s What You Need to Know.” The article explains the method by which Bluetooth data catalogs any instances of two phones running the program coming within a certain distance of each other.

“Mobile proximity tracing automatically logs contacts between people who are running compatible apps on their phones. Many automated solutions have been developed, but the one that’s likely to be most widely adopted is a framework jointly developed by Google and Apple. It uses Bluetooth low energy technology to log any event in which two people pass within a specified distance of each other. Each person’s phone exchanges an anonymized code that can be activated to notify the user if someone if a person they have been in contact with tests positive,” the article explains.

This aspect of contact tracing is already a function for Android users of the Everbridge app, but iOS users will need to download a separate app to work with Everbridge.

Ohnstad notes that this technology requires Whitman to provide Everbridge with users’ names, college ID, role (student, faculty or staff), Whitman email address and cell phone number. Additionally, GPS data is collected through the app’s Check-in and Auto Check-in functions. That location data is sent to the Everbridge server and is only accessible to authorized users at Whitman. In the event of COVID-19 exposure that requires a contact tracing process, authorized users can view a device’s location and the contact’s name on a map in Everbridge.

“Whitman College has a standardized security assessment that we perform on third party services,” Ohnstad said. “That assessment was done as part of the selection process in 2019 and then again as part of our decision to expand our use of the Everbridge Platform this summer. The second assessment focused on the protections and controls surrounding the additional information relevant to the contact tracing process … The information will be used only for notification purposes in the event of an emergency or a contact tracing process.”

According to Ohnstad, 416 of the 760 students, faculty or staff approved to be on campus downloaded the mobile app linked to their Everbridge account as of Sept. 24. Others are supposed to be completing wellness checks and contact tracing logs manually.

Associate Professor of Computer Science William Bares spoke on the effectiveness of the Everbridge app.

“[The app’s] effectiveness will depend on the human behavior of the users,” Bares said. “It assumes that everyone follows through [when asked to provide information].”

The app’s contact tracing abilities are entirely dependent upon people downloading the app and using it correctly; when more people use the app, Everbridge is able to create a more accurate map of contacts.

“With this final contact tracing functionality ready to go, we are excited to get more members of the Whitman community using the Everbridge app,” Ohnstad said. “The more people that participate, the more helpful this technology will be in helping curb the spread of coronavirus in our community.”