The Problem and Our Inspiration
Social distancing is the most sudden, drastic, and widespread behavioural change in human history. Staying at home, keeping apart, avoiding groups of friends, family, and coworkers all challenge us as social creatures. Now, many EU member states and countries around the world have begun (or are planning to) ease strict stay-at-home measures and are re-activating businesses -- while at the same time putting more responsibility on employers to keep their employees safe.
The challenge is that these rules are hard to always comply with -- since they're always at risk of changing with the situation and because people will naturally struggle to comply with them (out of forgetfulness or willful ignorance). The reality is that re-opening gets us a step closer to normal, but also drastically exposes our risk to contracting or spreading COVID-19.
The problem came close to home as our team members had family friends, or themselves had their employer notify them about their transition plan back to work. It created a combination of excitement and anxiety -- eager to get back to work with colleagues, but nervous about the risks of getting exposed on the way to/from work, or from interactions the colleagues and customers. COVID-19 doesn't discriminate where or when it chooses its victims after all!
We knew we weren't alone in the feeling -- after reviewing multiple sentiment surveys on workplace environments, press releases by corporations, and first-hand interviews with contacts that were leaders at corporations and HR directors/managers -- we knew the feeling was mutual. Whether working from home or returning to the workplace, employers all had their employees and their family's health and safety at top of mind -- and they knew that we weren't in the clear.
The fundamental question was: How can we get back to business while keeping our people safe in the "new normal"?
We wanted to create something to help people emerge from strict social distancing to the new normal -- by staying connected to the latest rules, using technology to keep us aware of the rules (and if we were breaking them), and positive encouragement and recognition to make it through together!
That's why we created MyBubble -- the 'digital bubble' that keeps you alert, informed, and safe in the "new normal"
Employers can use MyBubble to support employees in keeping safe/aware of their social-distance at work and out in the public, stay connected to latest public health guidance and workplace-specific best practices, and reward employees for avoiding risks, staying resilient, and adapting to "the new normal". This is particularly relevant for industries with high customer interactions (e.g., retail, government, professional services, etc.). Whether working from the office, store, worksite, or working from home -- MyBubble encourages the best social distancing practices in their interactions on-and-off the clock -- because COVID-19 doesn't discriminate where or when it strikes.
How it works: a behavioural science-based approach using positive reinforcement, loss aversion, and esteem
- Set the Challenge: Employers set the rules (based upon public health policies and any additional ones specific to their corporate policies), define a goal (perhaps like golf -- getting a "low score" for # of social distancing broken rules) or more positive goals (like sharing good practices with others), and defines whether they'll set a reward for their employees who achieve it.
- Live life in "Your Bubble": Players receive the challenge and 3 bubbles -- each like a "life" in a video game, a bubble bursts when you break social distancing rules, which is measured using Bluetooth technologies (see below). As users go about their week, push notifications provide warnings for social distance risks, and if they are too careless, get notified a bubble has "popped"! Players can get a bubble back through "redeeming" actions.
- Get recognized and rewarded: at the end of the challenge period, feedback is given on how they performed, and players who are successful get a digital badge that goes into their trophy case, in addition to any other rewards offered by the employer.
Core Design Principles:
- Safety: encouraging safe social distancing practices per the latest guidance in your everyday life, and inform players of changes as the situation changes and as workplace-specific policies adapt.
- Flexibility: as the core technology can have its parameters adjusted, the app can "move" with the social distancing policies and best practices of the day -- so if a 2nd wave should emerge, the strict rules and messaging can be re-introduced and eased as appropriate
- Positivity and Togetherness: creating opportunities for social encouragement and sharing/applauding each others' achievements and how we're contributing to the greater good!
- Trust and Respect for Privacy: from the beginning, we have factored in GDPR and user privacy in addition to minimizing the data stored/required. No track of movements, geolocation (beyond defining the geofence) is shared with any other parties, or who interactions/contacts are made with is stored. User data is stored natively on the device where possible.
How the technology works
Led by Chris White, a Bluetooth Engineer at Dolby Labs and member of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group and built by Kate O'Brien
The core technology allows for the real-time measurement of social distancing rules and push/on-screen notification for warning the player. This includes:
Staying-at-home or keeping safe in the outside world (GPS/Geofencing): identifying where's "home", so that you can get rewarded for staying-in-place, or be reminded to only leave home if it's essential, to wear a face covering, and to remind you to wash up when you get home (completed)
Geofencing has currently been set to allow you to define your home location using GPS, and set a fence of ~50m. We have tested this range to as low as 7m with accuracy. A future refinement will be to turn off other distancing functions while at home as this is your "safe space" and to whitelist those you live with
Avoiding groups (Bluetooth LE scanning/advertising for device count): identifying when you're in a close congregation above the maximum allowed, or warning you when you're approaching a busy area by scanning for the number of devices in a given area (with a defined # of devices identified over a given scanning area (<100ft) indicating density) (completed)
We're identifying a "group" as five or more people. This uses the Received Signal Strength Indicator (RSSI) detected for each device belonging to a person in the group. We can define a "busy area" based upon a scanning radius of up to approximately 100 feet.
Keeping a safe distance (Bluetooth beacon, Augmented Reality (AR)): Bluetooth beacon tech to approximate when two devices are less than two meters apart (under development); AR to visualize the two meter distance rule between you and others or to "floor plan" distances between workspaces (to be integrated)**
Since the use of Bluetooth beacon technology for measuring distances between devices is highly influenced by external factors such as RF interference and smartphone HW & SW variations, further research is required. We are considering whether to rely on alternative means, such as AR to give a visualization of proximity, instead. Several partners have been identified to integrate their AR distancing features into our app; those integrations will occur in the future iteration.
Hygienic Reminders and Updates (Push notifications): notifications can be timed (e.g., intermittent reminders to "Wash your hands!" or "Clean your workspace" near end of day at 5PM), or pushed as new information emerges (e.g., a new government policy in response to a change in the situation)
Point logging: reward mechanisms are run using a "counter" -- which can track # of "bubble burst" events, positive actions/behaviours, reading updates, and to reward time spent staying-in-place.
You can see our pre-prototype research in action in this video
What We Accomplished at EUvsVirus
Thanks to the hard work of our team, we're proud to share what we managed to pull off:
- Re-framed the business model and validated a target market: only a few weeks ago, our team had first met and conceptualized MyBubble as a social distancing game for teens, but we realized some of the difficulties in uptake and potential challenges from a business model perspective. Randall led the market research to investigate 3 key areas: 1) how social distancing policies were changing in the EU member states and globally - now and in the near-term by reviewing policy documents and press releases, 2) what employers were concerned about in the transition period for their employee health/wellbeing/anxieties -- by interviewing (with some late night calls!) HR directors/managers at corporations in the professional services, retail, and administrative services sectors, and government (high customer interactions) -- several of whom welcomed follow-on discussions on piloting, and 3) by analyzing how to shift from a B2C-based business model to a B2B SAAS model -- which will improve the profitability, sustainability, and scalability of the product. This required a complete reset of the pitch, positioning, and product priorities.
- Build-in the "Group Detection" functionality: Chris' research has paid off in investigating Bluetooth -- including for proximity detection and group detection. Using his devices and field testing in still-busy areas such as grocery stores, Chris and Kate were able to translate the research on device detection and their signal strength to approximate how "busy" a place was, or whether you were in a group of people. This was built into the demo app -- there is still lots of room for improvement, and limitations to the precision which need to be investigated.
- Launched the Android app: our past work had focused mostly on technical research and coming up with a proof of concept -- which means we didn't come into this with any working app. So we are happy to have managed to build something working! Users can to get introduced to MyBubble, do things like geofence their home so they can get reminders when they leave/come back home, test the group functionality, and to have in the background these other notification functionalities. See the section below on how to test. We are going to spend the week following the hackathon to continue to refine the functionality and interfaces so that we can take an improved version and one in iOS as well this to pitches with potential clients.
- Update UI with broader customer focus: we've had a few initial iterations of the MyBubble concept - first by a non-designer for prototype/storyboarding, but now have had the technical and design talent (Nick) to help build more professional, polished, and UX-focused screens! You can see how our original Figma was mocked up vs. the vastly improved current iterations in the app below or our InVision.
- Learned a lot: we had to re-think our business strategy thanks to feedback from target customers and the EU context, had to re-test and re-research GPS and Bluetooth functions to get greater consistency, had to work out bugs between our Android and iOS demo versions, and more. We are also closely following how other groups are using Bluetooth technology for other uses -- like contact tracing and quarantine enforcement (but are still very from a use case perspective).
- Had fun!: we're very proud of what we managed to accomplish in the short time span, the lessons learned, and with teams spanning an 8 hour time difference end-to-end! This was the first time the expanded team has worked together
MyBubble's Impact for COVID-19
To Employers -- who all want to help their employees to be happy, healthy, and productive -- we feel that MyBubble is the best way to do that in the age of COVID-19. Here's how we can impact the lives of millions of workers in the EU and worldwide:
- Improve compliance with current social distancing rules by giving the technology to help measure, warn, and remind employees -- this helps them avoid risky situations and potentially reduce absenteeism where they may get in contact with COVID-19
- Support good habit-formation by providing friendly nudges, reminders, and warnings -- intermittent interactions and rewards can make them 'second nature', which can not only help their safe behaviours in and out of the office, but those behaviours also transfer to family members
- Connect, in real-time, the latest public health messaging and best practices from Health Agencies and the employer with the employee -- reducing their stress/burden to find the information themselves
- Employers can positively recognize employees for their efforts by offering reward points for achievements or donations that are made to the community on employees' behalf - *reducing stress and anxiety tied with the times and *boost morale
- Improved health and happiness ultimately reduces employee burnout risk in a stressful time, reduces the risk of transmission and getting in contact with COVID-19, and reduces the risk they "bring it home with them", which could result in them having to take time off to care for loved ones
- Can allow them to demonstrate their corporate citizenship to the world how they and their employees "contributed to the fight against COVID-19" -- by showing how they used MyBubble to improve their behaviours, reduce "bubble bursts" to show improvement, and to have the digital badges to show for it!
To Public Health Agencies/Society -- a new datapoint on where people are having difficulty with social distance compliance: aggregated, anonymized data from all MyBubble users can help identify where "risky" social distance behaviours are having high rates of non-compliance, providing completely new data that can help inform targeted messaging campaigns to correct those issues. Further, public health agencies can more proactively push changes to social distancing rules through an app that has everyday engagement and provides them the technological nudge in MyBubble to encourage those rules, increasing awareness and compliance.
Our all-volunteer team, formed out of a previous hackathon, are eager to get MyBubble into the COVID-19 fight, with these to-dos:
- Conduct further research to refine the functionalities -- there is still lots of improvement for precision and the use of additional tools to improve proximity detection
- Get further resources to complete our demo app: we continue to work hard to get our demo app completed - the iOS demo version is near-complete; to scale and sustain MyBubble, we'd like to gather financial support, officially register as a company, and recruit more team members to make it happen (already underway). Thanks to the hard work over the last few days, we are at a state that we can have a demo to show and sell!
- Establish a Pilot (company or city): we have begun discussions with potential partner companies to test and sponsor a rewards program (large retail and technology companies), as well as target government bodies (including city public health agencies and national bodies). We have gathered a few advisors in the EU, CA, and US to help make connections
- Feature additions (product roadmap): we have built a product roadmap to include features like AR-based proximity visualization, API integrations, and more interaction features (such as the rewards engine for employers to offer points).
Our hope is that with success at EUvsVirus, we can find partners and recruit team members to be ready to support people as we transition into the "new normal" in the coming weeks/months.
Impact of MyBubble After COVID-19
MyBubble is a flexible solution by design - including a post-COVID world. This is due to its:
- Core technology: the tech, which uses Bluetooth and GPS, can be adapted for various applications - including interactions with those nearby, connecting wearable devices, interacting with your environment (geofences), and behavioural recognition/rewards
- Root in behavioural science: the design, motivation factors, and social dynamics are designed to encourage greater compliance with social distancing rules, but can be used to motivate people and peer groups to make better health/lifestyle choices
- Re-deployability for any future "2nd waves" or new pandemics: should public health policy change in response to the situation on the ground, MyBubble can update its rules parameters and inform users about the new social distancing rules
- Adaptability to new use cases: we have already identified with the market new future use cases of the technology and rewards framework in post-COVID cases -- including improving overall employee health and lifestyle choices, improving clinical workflows and hygiene practices within hospitals, workplace engagement, social fitness, and AR gaming.
Our hope is that MyBubble will gather a large user base and be able to pivot to becoming that "digital cheerleader" to encourage people to live happier, healthier, connected lives!