Carnegie Mellon University
September 22, 2020

CMU Has Network Advantage in Fight Against COVID-19

By Kelly Saavedra

Getting ahead in life is often about who you know.

So, when CMU mathematics professor Po-Shen Loh came up with an idea for an app that could help the world get ahead of COVID-19, the first thing he did was post on social media that he was looking for help.

“My mom saw Po’s post and shared it with me,” said Dean Dijour, who was a senior at the time majoring in human-computer interaction and information systems at CMU. “I figured my skills and interests in rapid prototyping might be a decent fit, so I sent Po an email.”

The two hopped on a call, and they made a game plan. Next, Dijour called one of the best designers he knows, Bennett Huffman, his friend from the student-run campus organization TEDxCMU. Huffman was interested, too.

“When schools started shutting down, I realized that COVID-19 would be a defining issue for my generation. I found myself in a unique position whereby I could potentially save lives,” said Huffman, a junior majoring in information systems and human-computer interaction. “To fight issues like this one day is why I attend CMU, and what I hope to continue doing after graduation. Would we be successful? I didn’t know, but it was a chance worth taking. Knowing Dean, and knowing a bit about Po at the time, I knew this was a team that might pull it off.”

The very next morning, Dijour, Huffman and Loh began prototyping the first version of NOVID, an app that uses a mathematical concept known as network theory to let you know when COVID-19 is striking somewhere near you. More CMU talent quickly joined the trio in their efforts, and the result is a tool to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 that surpasses its competition.

"Our diverse team of makers and doers is simply on a mission to do good."
Dean Dijour

NOVID differs from other contact tracing apps because of its two major innovations powered by mathematics. One is an early warning network that allows pre-exposure notifications, so you can take greater precautions as you learn COVID-19 is striking closer to you in the network. The other major innovation is NOVID’s use of ultrasound to detect with greater precision how far apart devices in the network are.

Entrepreneurs and innovators steeped in CMU tradition were at the epicenter of the initial innovation the team needed to make ultrasound work for NOVID. Loh pulled information and talent from many schools and colleges across CMU to design, implement, promote and expand his solution for fighting COVID-19, which uses math at its core.

“Carnegie Mellon was the place to create NOVID because we have so many different areas of expertise — a remarkable group of students, alumni and other people in the university ecosystem who are really, really talented,” Loh said. “There is a work ethic that runs through the CMU community. Somehow we know how to get things done.”

As far as team leaders go, Dijour said Loh is hands-down one of the best he has ever worked with.

“Po isn’t afraid of the unknown, he embraces it. That’s pretty admirable,” Dijour said. “He learned iOS and Android development in just a few days, pioneered a new ultrasonic distance measurement protocol and spent sleepless nights working on code, designs and infrastructure.”

Dijour added, “He's a one-man rocket ship, but that doesn't stop him from bringing everyone else on board. It doesn’t stop him from educating people, learning from people half his age and helping everyone grow together as a team.”

Huffman agrees.

“Po’s relentless passion, hope, vision and drive to tackle such an enormous and chaotic problem head-on is incredibly inspiring,” Huffman said. “He instills a great sense of confidence in our team, and he does that through leading by example.”

For students working on the project, Loh said NOVID unites everything they have been learning and takes it to bear on perhaps the most important central problem in the entire world.

“It has been remarkably heartwarming to see how a CMU education is able to translate so quickly into something that can turn into actual impact,” Loh said.

Dijour and Huffman said they hope NOVID influences how diseases are monitored and prevented in the future.

“Our diverse team of makers and doers is simply on a mission to do good,” Dijour said. “Other than NOVID, there really isn't anything else that can help people see a virus before it hits us.”