[As part of our continuing series on the “Return to Campus”, CriticalArc is exploring hot topics.  This is the first of these in-depth blogs, with a focus on Contact Tracing.]

The Search for Contact Tracing Solutions

As higher education leadership teams continue preparations for the Return to Campus, they’re actively searching for and evaluating a variety of contact tracing solutions to help them battle COVID-19 and protect students, faculty and staff. This search has proven challenging as no one technology or approach is equipped to serve all the needs of a university. And it’s difficult to identify solutions that are efficient, scalable, cost-effective, and can also be quickly implemented while respecting the data privacy of the campus community. Add to that no one department can solve contact tracing on their own – it requires cross-departmental collaboration and coordination between IT, Health & Safety, Security, Facilities, Student Wellness, Academics, Student Union etc.

Factors Driving the Need for Contact Tracing

Nonetheless, university executives and their teams are committed to identifying suitable contact tracing solutions which are driven based upon the following factors:

  • Given the rising COVID-19 cases worldwide, and the thousands of students who will return to each campus for the upcoming semester, most believe it’s inevitable multiple students and staff will test positive for the coronavirus
  • The need to have a contact tracing solution in place is viewed as essential in order to respond to positive COVID-19 tests as quickly, effectively and comprehensively as possible so universities can maximize safety while maintaining university operations and business continuity
  • To protect their reputation and brand, it’s vital for universities to communicate and demonstrate they have invested in and implemented best practice solutions to reassure parents, students and staff they’re prepared to minimize the impacts of any potential outbreaks
  • Likewise, risk management is driving the search for contact tracing so universities can establish the incremental steps taken to minimize the damage associated with an outbreak and meet their duty of care
  • In this ultra-competitive market to attract and retain students, universities are searching for the means to differentiate their student experience other competing higher education institutions


Ten Requirements for Your Contact Tracing Solution

 As university leaders galvanize in the need for contact tracing solutions, they’ve begun an extensive search for the best solution for their particular needs. What makes this task particularly challenging is the lack of national standards and guidelines to follow in each country. Ideally, the goal of contact tracing as a result of an individual testing positive is to determine who to contact, with what information and to understand the extent of exposure and contamination so university officials can take the appropriate next steps. Effectively, “Can we be precise about who we need to contact, to take the exposed out of circulation and prevent an outbreak on campus”?

The challenges of operating in a COVID-19 environment are immense and organizations are looking to leverage technology to enhance their capabilities as it relates to Contact Tracing.  In most cases, a purely manual approach won’t scale and provide the actionable intelligence needed to provide a safer learning environment for students, faculty and staff.

Among the stringent list of requirements university officials are seeking to meet:

  • Proven Technology: a solution that has been successfully deployed numerous times, not a new service.
  • Scalable: Works as well on one or multiple campuses for 5,000 or 50,000 students or more.
  • Privacy Protection: Honors the privacy of every staff and student and protects their identity.
  • Demonstrable Impact: Provides a clear and tangible commitment to protect the wellbeing of the campus community.
  • Actionable Intelligence: Data helps university officials with increased awareness of who tested positive for or has symptoms of COVID-19, and with identifying the people and places they came in contact with them so they can take the necessary precautions to minimize further exposure and spread.
  • Minimizes Risks: To members of the campus community and to the overall higher education institution.
  • Sustain Operations: Enables the university to continue operating by reducing the impact of COVID-19 cases on the overall campus community.
  • Quick to Implement: Can be deployed quickly so the solution can be tested, validated and communicated in advance of the Return to Campus.
  • Delivers Ongoing Value: In a post-COVID-19 world, the organization can derive continued value from the solution i.e. not a stranded asset.
  • Provides a Competitive Advantage: As universities struggle to achieve enrollment numbers amid budget cuts, they want a solution that helps distinguish their institution from others students may be considering.

Contact Tracing with Mobile Phone

Contact Tracing Services Under Consideration

Practically speaking there is no one silver bullet for contact tracing that meets the extensive requirements of a large, complex organization like a university.  Most likely, your organization will decide on some combination of processes and technology to address your needs. Below is a high-level review of some of the more common approaches referenced in the industry, along with their pros and cons.

Human Contact Tracers

You hire a team of individuals to perform contact tracing and then assign them to conduct interviews with individuals who tested positive for COVID-19 or are suspected to have come in contact with those did. Through interviews, the contact tracers attempt to gather as much information as possible about where the patient went, when they went there, who they interacted with etc. The quality and thoroughness of the data collected is highly dependent on both the interviewee and the interviewer. Information is then collated and fed into a central system for analysis and action.


  • Relatively fast to implement
  • Easily direct resources where needed
  • Can outsource personnel


  • Information is limited by recall of those interviewed, who often do not feel well
  • Manually intensive and difficult to scale
  • Costly

Masked girl with mobile phone

Apple/Google Contact Tracing

Many view the anonymous Bluetooth proximity contract tracing functionality provided by Apple and Google as the gold standard.  Let’s examine a high-level review of how this technology works.  First off, Apple and Google are offering an API on which apps can be built.  Access to the API is limited to government and public health authorities. Now it’s up to countries and local governments to develop apps that use the API. Australia has done so but most countries are well behind, including the UK and the US, where only 3 states have committed to use the technology. Based on this you can expect a variety of solutions to emerge with a lack of consistency from one government entity to another; of course, some will choose to bypass this technology.

The Apple/Google solution uses Bluetooth technology to determine which phones it comes contact with that are also running the same COVID-19 tracking app. If an individual reports themselves as positive for Covid-19, the app sends the anonymized ID of the infected user’s device to a server, which then sends this ID to all devices with the tracing app.  All instances of the app then check if they have been in proximity of the infected user’s device and alerts them locally, on their device to take the appropriate next steps.  Basically, anyone who has been near the infected person for a prolonged period in the last two weeks is pinged with an alert and these people can then take action (get tested and self-isolate), which hopefully slows transmission of the disease.

The Apple/Google API certainly has many positives over a purely manual approach. But like any technology, it has its limitations.  Below is a summary of just some of the advantages and disadvantages of this technology.


  • Protects the privacy of individuals
  • Scalable technology
  • Automatically notifies all those potentially infected, as long as they have the app installed


  • No details are shared with the organization on who the individual is associated with and where they went so the University doesn’t know that ‘John Doe” has tested positive for COVID-19, or any of those who may have been contaminated, and cannot direct Facilities to clean particular areas that have been contaminated with the virus
  • Dependent on the user downloading a particular app, and that same app being used by others in the community
  • Many apps are not currently live and lack a clear roadmap to being in place and thoroughly tested before the end of the year

If you’d like more information on the limitations of the Apple/Google API, please contact us and we can share a detailed overview with you.

Wide Range of point-based solutions:

These contact tracing solutions are offered by vendors and generally are new (unproven) and offer limited capabilities.  For example, various data networking companies tout the ability to help an organization monitor social distancing, but this only works if everyone on campus has Wi-Fi turned on, and it can only identify individuals who are actually connected to that Wi-Fi network. Our research indicates as many as 50% of students don’t turn on Wi-Fi or connect to their organization’s network due to unlimited data plans, concerns about battery life and a lack of seamless network transitions when they move across campus. Plus, a Wi-Fi-only solution strictly only provides data within the campus Wi-Fi coverage.

Another approach is to offer a special Bluetooth enabled Student ID, but these can be pricey, often reaching $100 or more per ID so a 20,000-student university would incur a $2 Million dollar cost, with limited long-term strategic value in a post-COVID-19 environment.

Personal heatmap to track COVID-19 exposure
SafeZone can generate a personal heatmap of a person who tests positive for COVID-19 to track who and what places were exposed.

SafeZone’s Contact Tracing Solution

Given the limitations of a point-based approach, a solution that supports BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) is a logical approach. Virtually all college students have smart phones – in fact Pew Research reports that 96% of those aged 18-29 in the US have a smart phone, Statista reports 95% of those aged 12-24 in Australia have a smartphone, and in the UK, the Office for National Statistics reported that 100% of 16-24-year-olds have Internet access via a smartphone.

SafeZone offers a comprehensive campus safety solution for all your needs, wherever you have duty of care, including the immense challenges of COVID-19. As we highlighted in a recent blog, there are two scenarios in which SafeZone can help with Contact Tracing. The first applies to the organization who has purchased SafeZone, but has no Indoor Positioning beacons installed on campus. In this case, those on campus need to have downloaded and activated the SafeZone App and checked-in when on campus. If an end user feels ill with coronavirus symptoms, they can use the app to raise an alert and call for assistance. This alert routes directly to the security and safety team tied to the university. The team can then swiftly deploy medical and security personnel to respond to the incident. In addition, through the use of the Check-In feature,  they can begin running a playback recording to track and trace where and when the individual entered and exited various buildings so they can pull up corresponding CCTV footage to see who the individual came into proximity with, and where in the building they went. This provides the university with a starting point so the security team can take decisive actions such as quarantining those who came in contact with the sick individual and requesting facilities staff to do a deep cleaning of the areas in which the infected person visited.

Contact Tracing by floor
Universities can use SafeZone’s Indoor Positioning Solution to generate a view of which individuals were exposed to a particular person.


In the second scenario, the university has a Bluetooth beacon-based indoor positioning solution implemented around campus such as the Aruba Meridian system.  This capability integrated with SafeZone, comprises the foundation for SafeZone’s Indoor Positioning Solution. In this case organizations are requiring users to be checked-in so that if an individual reports a positive test, the university has a very accurate historical view of who and what floors and rooms the person visited in each building with time-stamped reporting.  And with the floor-by-floor information, the university can advise the facilities teams of which rooms, floors and buildings require a deep cleaning. Furthermore, this enables the university to monitor social distancing compliance by managing a count by floor or within a given room in the building both in real time and historically.

It’s important to note that use of SafeZone for contact tracing applications does require those on campus to download the SafeZone App perform a one-time registration.  The organization then requires, or strongly recommends the use of the Check-In feature within the SafeZone app which allow users to share their location when they are on campus. SafeZone customers have been successful in communicating the benefits of the app to its constituents by emphasizing the importance of embracing a campus community mindset in which each student or staff member can do their part to make thee campus safer and minimize the impact of an outbreak across campus.

Viewing people checked-in across campus
SafeZone provides a real time and historical view of all the individuals checked into SafeZone across campus.

SafeZone’s Advantages Versus Other Contact Tracing Solutions

Perhaps the most straightforward way to communicate SafeZone’s advantages over other contact tracing solutions is to review the requirements cited above and explain how SafeZone addresses each one of the criteria.

  • Proven Technology: SafeZone has been commercially available for nine years and deployed at both large and small universities around the world, so the technology is proven to deliver.
  • Scalable: SafeZone is a cloud-based SaaS service, engineered to exacting standards to meet the needs of multi-campus organizations, and is operational for organizations as large as 100,000+ students.
  • Privacy Protection: A significant consideration in the academic community is preserving the privacy of faculty, staff and students. SafeZone meets this requirement by only identifying the end user when they raise an alert for assistance, so they control when their information is shared with first responders. SafeZone has stringent data privacy requirements, including adherence to GDPR standards, FISMA compliant data centers, and FIPS compliant encryption – see additional details on Privacy protection here.
  • Demonstrable Impact: An investment in Safezone sends a clear message to parents, students and staff that the university is committed to the wellbeing, safety, security of the campus community through the delivery of a tangible service that provides benefits beyond COVID-19.
  • Actionable Intelligence: Data helps university officials with increased awareness of who tested positive for or has symptoms of COVID-19, and with identifying the people and places they came in contact with them so the university can take the necessary precautions to minimize further exposure and spread
  • Minimizes Risks: SafeZone helps the university reduce risks through the use of its historical playback functionality which enables safety and security teams to see who an infected person came in contact with so those individuals can be notified and begin to self-isolate to curb further spread of the virus. This helps you assess risk and reassure students and staff you’ve made extensive efforts to safely reopen.
  • Sustain Operations: SafeZone helps the university maintain its operations by helping them to understand the impact the infected persons have had on various classrooms, dining halls, and common areas so arrangements can be made to deep clean these areas to reduce chances for further exposure.
  • Quick to Implement: Safezone is a solution that can be configured and implemented in a matter of days not weeks or months so the university can turn-up and communicate the benefits of the solution prior to the Return to Campus
  • Delivers Ongoing Value: At a time when budgets are shrinking, senior leadership teams are not willing to spend significant sums for a service that doesn’t provide value in a post-COVID-19 world. Rather, they’re looking for a solution that delivers ongoing value and SafeZone does just that with the real-time situational awareness and command and control functionality.
  • Provides a Competitive Advantage: SafeZone provides a university with an advantage that can be highlighted during orientation/Freshers, campus tours, and other recruiting events so parents and students alike will feel reassured their university cares deeply about their safety and wellbeing. As universities struggle to reach enrollment targets amid budget cuts, they want a solution that helps distinguish their institution from others students may be considering.