The secret to RPI’s COVID-19 success is in its apps

Available to any higher education institution, they have helped identify how frequently testing needs to happen ... and helped Rensselaer manage its infection rates.
By: | November 12, 2020
Tang Ming Tung/Getty Images

The COVID-19 infection rate at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York has been less than 0.5% throughout the fall semester. There’s a reason for that, says Malik Magdon-Ismail, professor of computer science.

He says other campuses have had to shut down because their testing protocols have not been as robust or as efficient as RPI’s system, which not only includes all of the usual pandemic guidelines but one more: RPI has been testing and tracking its students twice per week since it reopened back in August.

Through an algorithm developed by Magdon-Ismail called COVID Back-to-School, a free online app maintained by the university’s Institute for Data Exploration and Applications, RPI has been able to keep its campus free from outbreaks and been able to quickly contain any possible spread by identifying infections quickly. Through data, the app pre-determines how often students need to best tested. In this case, it was twice per week. RPI not only tests on-site, but the majority of those tests are also then processed in its labs.

He says that tool and another he created called COVID War Room are available to any college and university.

“This is a publicly available tool that we’re hoping schools can use to quantitatively analyze re-opening strategies,” Magdon-Ismail said. “Schools can use it, at least, to evaluate how their current strategy will play out assuming an infection on campus. Better still, COVID Back-to-School allows schools to try out various strategies before actually implementing them, to see what works and what doesn’t.”

President Shirley Ann Jackson lauded the efforts by her team and the professor for their work and in keeping the Troy campus safe. RPI has been testing about 7,000 students per week in its T3SQI strategy – Testing, Tracing, Tracking, Surveillance and Quarantine/Isolation.

“Rensselaer is a community of doers committed to changing the world, so it is no surprise that when faced with a novel challenge, we have risen to the occasion,” she said. “I am confident that the work of our experts, like Professor Magdon-Ismail and many others, will benefit countless campus communities, in addition to our own, as we find our way through this difficult time. We encourage other institutions to learn from and use these tools, like COVID Back-to-School, in hopes that they have similar success in the spring.”

COVID Back-to-School and COVID War Room rely on machine learning using robust data from a number of sources to see in advance the potential for rates of infection to rise or the potential for outbreaks to happen. From the data, university leaders and students are able to view how certain activities, such as gatherings, can affect future data and rises in infection.

Students in turn can use a variety of apps developed by RPI to input their activities and their health profiles every day to give researchers and officials a better idea of how to effectively prevent outbreaks.

Of course, no campus initiative would be successful without a number of other steps that help foster a safe environment. Social Distancing and masks are mandatory but the college has also reduced the numbers of students in classes and instituted staggered meal times. That combined with its work on the tech side and in labs give RPI an all-encompassing model to stave off spread of the virus.

“Consistent with our legacy of technological expertise, Rensselaer was able to develop a number of tools and strategies in-house that have enabled us to maintain control over the virus and remain focused on our education and research mission this semester,” Jackson said.