Kinnison leads effort to develop app for recording research lab use during the pandemic

In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, research across universities was inevitably disrupted. Field and lab researchers alike were forced to adapt and find innovative ways to continue their projects.

Michael Kinnison, a professor of evolutionary applications at the University of Maine, was looking for ways to adapt his own lab to pandemic restrictions. He saw that the University was offering hybrid learning and implemented testing and contact tracing protocols, but research operations were more dynamic, requiring more in-person work.

Along with Andy Kay, Kate Beard-Tisdale, Ali Abedi, and Tilan Copson, Kinnison developed the UMSpaceSafe App, which allows people to record when they are in a lab or shared space. If an infected individual uses a shared space, the app is able to provide information on who else was in that space and help with contact tracing. The project was supported by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate School.

Conducting research requires a certain level of mobility because the equipment needed could be spread across various rooms. “So that led us to the idea that maybe we could design a tool that would allow people to log when they entered spaces that might be shared with other individuals.”

The app creates a database for all labs to track the use of shared spaces. If each lab has its own sign-in system, it can be a lot harder for UMaine contact tracers to locate individuals who have been exposed to COVID-19. The app currently has hundreds of users across the University of Maine System.

The app was designed to be user-friendly and versatile. UMSpaceSafe allows users to select the lab or room in which they are working, and also record if they are with someone from outside of the UMaine System. If there are multiple users in the same space, the app pairs them together and stores that data for about a month before it is deleted. Even outdoor sites, vessels, or farms used for research can be logged using the app.

If a person using a shared space tested positive for COVID-19, the contact tracers could contact Andy Kay, the database manager, and he can quickly produce a list of possible close contacts using the data stored in the app.

“The key thing with something like COVID is taking the people who may be exposed and able to infect others out of contact with others as quickly as possible. The longer it takes to connect information between somebody who was infected and the people who may be infected and don’t know it, the disease can spread further,” says Kinnison.

The UMSpaceSafe web app is accessed by visiting and logging in using UMS credentials. For more information visit the UMSpaceSafe website.


Written by Ali Tobey