18 March 2021 Department of Computer Science , Faculty , Student , News Media

With new Covid-19 cases spiking into the hundreds daily in May last year, a team from the National University of Singapore (NUS) raced against time to develop a system to help government contact tracers identify close contacts of patients. The high volume of cases had threatened to overwhelm contact tracers, who needed to ensure that those exposed could be quickly identified, tested and isolated to limit further spread of the coronavirus.

Despite their relative inexperience in creating such a large-scale system, the team of six current and former NUS students managed to develop a Web application in under three weeks, with help from the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). The app collated information from various sources to provide contact tracers with an overview of the patient's movements and the people he was in close contact with.

The NUS team's efforts were recognised on Thursday (March 18) at the IT Leader Awards 2021, which was themed Tech Heroes From Crisis to pay tribute to people who made a significant positive impact on the community through technology during the Covid-19 crisis. The awards were organised by the Singapore Computer Society.

Mr Zhu Hanming, 23, who was the co-team lead of the NUS team, said that the Web app converted an existing contact-tracing process, involving manually updating patient activity in a spreadsheet, into a digital form that could be automatically updated.

This was needed to cope with a large number of Covid-19 cases because the previous manual updating process, from the days of the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak, was incapable of handling the high patient numbers. The app was built off a concept version that SAF had initially developed. SAF had sought the help of NUS Computing Associate Professor Ben Leong in May to create such an app.

Prof Leong then assembled a team from a Computing for Voluntary Welfare Organisations initiative, sponsored by the sovereign wealth fund GIC, which helps voluntary welfare groups build IT systems.

The NUS team comprises five computer science students - four in Year 1 and one in Year 3 - and a computer engineering graduate.

The most difficult challenge they faced was that they had little time to develop a functioning app, said Mr Zhu, a first-year computer science student.

"The time period we had to deploy the app and make any changes to it was overnight.

"We couldn't possibly have the contact tracers wait for us to finish deployment in the day," said Mr Zhu, adding that there were also last-minute changes due to the ever-changing situation on the ground.

But being able to deploy the app in June last year in under three weeks was satisfying for the team and worth the sleepless nights.

"It was incredibly fast for the scale of the application we built," said Mr Zhu.

There were 13 winners for this year's Tech Heroes From Crisis awards.

The Straits Times, 18 March 2021