Office of External Affairs

September 3, 2020

Huskies fighting COVID-19: Shwetak Patel

External Affairs

This week we connected with Shwetak Patel, Washington Research Foundation Entrepreneurship Endowed Professor in Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering and Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at the University of Washington. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Patel and his team have redirected their research efforts to focus on the development of new mobile tools for supporting rapid diagnostic testing, symptom detection and monitoring and contact tracing in partnership with other Allen School researchers, UW Medicine physicians and local software industry volunteers.

Q: How has your work/focus shifted with the emergence of COVID-19?

A: Much of my work was already focused on digital health with a particular emphasis on global health. The pivot to COVID was pretty straightforward given some of our work in Rapid Diagnostic Test, Pulmonary, etc were in some ways related to COVID. We applied a lot of what we learned in global health towards the pandemic which includes enabling frontline workers, developing easy to deploy tools, etc. It was interesting to see most of the lab pivot towards helping with COVID related efforts even if their research didn’t directly touch it.

Q: What Computer Science and Engineering COVID-19 related projects should policymakers and the business community know about?

A: There is the full list of CS&E COVID-19 related projects here. I urge people to think broadly about the how computational tools can help with the management of COVID cases, the prediction of outcomes, prediction of where resources may be needed, tools to enable remote monitoring and triage and finally telemedicine.

Q: Could you share an update on the progress of developing the CovidSafe contact tracing app? When do you think it will be ready to launch?

A: The CovidSafe app is now called CommonCircle. This was developed by a CS&E team and the [UW] Med School with substantial help from software engineer volunteers in the region. The app has gone through a round of piloting on UW campus and the team is gearing for a launch this fall for students, staff, and faculty. The other goal of the effort is to create an open source app that others can also build off of as well.

Q: What is one thing you wish more policymakers understood about how technology can help communities combat the coronavirus?

A: Flexibility and a strong dialogue between the technology community and policymakers is really important. We should certainly develop technology with strong principles in place, but many times it was hard to predict the positive or negative impact of a technology. It is how we respond and adapt. Also, I see technology has an enabler or amplifier and not the primary solution. We need to think about the public health and technology policies hand in hand when appropriate.

Q: When you look into next year and beyond, what challenges do you foresee for our communities as we continue to navigate this crisis? How can we ensure we navigate these challenges in a way that is equitable to all?

A: I think the biggest challenge for me is public perseverance and the widening gap in health disparities. Based on all indications, this is something we are going to have to navigate for a long time and there will be bumps in the road as we iron out testing, develop a vaccine, and develop healthy workforce practices. I worry we stop innovating or let our guard down just by getting “tired” of the situation and at the same time we innovate to only help a small portion of the population whereas we need to think about helping EVERYONE. When it comes to equity, we can think about making sure our innovations don’t create larger disparities. For example, focusing on multiple platforms, lower end and higher end phones, access to technology and digital literacy. Stakeholder analysis and formative user research can go a long way prior to designing any technology.


From the beginning, the University of Washington and UW Medicine have supported our state’s efforts to mitigate the effects of COVID-19. “Huskies fighting COVID-19” is a feature series highlighting individuals whose work is making an impact from Public Health and Computer Science & Engineering to the Virology Lab and the emergency room.

Shwetak N. Patel is the Washington Research Foundation Entrepreneurship Endowed Professor in Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering and Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at the University of Washington, where he directs the Ubicomp Lab. His research interests span Human-Computer Interaction, Ubiquitous Computing, Sensor-enabled Embedded Systems, and User Interface Software and Technology. His past work has included the development of whole-home, energy, and water sensing systems, mobile health applications for detecting and managing disease, and new interaction technologies.