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Thursday February 2nd

New app tracks crowding and mask-wearing to help students navigate campus safely

<p>The Gillings School of Global Public Health as pictured on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.</p>
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The Gillings School of Global Public Health as pictured on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.

UNC researchers developed a web application called SaferWays to gather information about crowding, physical distancing and mask wearing on and around campus.

The SaferWays app gathers data via anonymous reports that users input into the site, which helps inform decisions about where and when to go.

The project was made possible through a partnership between researchers and leaders at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, College of Arts and Sciences and Office of the Vice Chancellor for Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Economic Development.

SaferWays received support from the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory at UNC, with funding from the Coronavirus Relief Fund that was established by the North Carolina General Assembly.

Kurt Ribisl, the chairperson of the department of health behavior at the Public Health School and a co-developer of the app, noticed that some places in the Chapel Hill and Carrboro area have done a better job at following health safety protocols than others. He said he thought the app could help people determine risk before going out to those places.

“This is helping people navigate where the places are doing a great job and where people are going to feel safer,” Ribisl said. “That was the idea.”

Willa Chen, a graduate research assistant at UNC and project manager on the app, worked to make adjustments to improve the user experience on the app. She said they want everyone in the community to be able to use the app’s features.

“We're hoping to first start by building a steady stream of reports and making it more helpful to users,” Chen said. 

Chen also helped the SaferWays team recruit a group of students to form the SaferWays Community Corps, a group that files reports about the safety of locations on the app.

Paloma Baca is one of these volunteers. Whenever she is on campus, she files a report for the app answering questions about crowd size, mask wearing and social distancing. She said the goal of making the report is simply to provide data — not to report individuals for bad behavior.

“The thing I like about it is that it's not directed at anyone,” Baca said. “It's not like you report certain students for not wearing their mask, it's literally just information.”

Baca said that, as more people utilize the app, the data compiled will be more accurate and helpful to users. 

“The more people who use it, the more information that SaferWays can get, the more accurate and the more safe we'll be able to be,” Baca said.

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