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Smart, Healthy Communities Initiative


Safer Illinois App Archive

Rokwire’s Safer Illinois app was rolled out to support the University of Illinois comprehensive COVID-19 mitigation program. The University of Illinois discontinued its use of the Safer Illinois app as of January 3, 2022. Below, we share its history, features, and impact. 

About Safer Illinois

The Safer Illinois app was developed to help students safely return to campus in the fall of 2020. To reduce the spread of COVID-19 and enable classes to resume, the University developed a cheaper, less invasive saliva test and required mandatory testing for all students, faculty and staff. 

For extensive testing to work, the process needed to be simple and efficient, with technology to support the process. Students and staff needed to know when and where to get tested, how to access their results, and what to do if they tested positive. Building access would be granted for those who had recent, negative test results. The Safer Illinois app was developed to manage the logistics of this mandatory testing. 

Safer Illinois presented students, faculty and staff with a digital version of their COVID-19 health status. Test results from the SHIELD testing program were stored on users’ mobile devices. The app also provided:

  • Virus testing coordination
  • Building access status pass
  • Community health recommendations
  • Proximity-based health exposure notifications

Safer Illinois by the Numbers

49,000 unique users
94% of test results transmitted via the app
3.95 million app sessions
920,000 views of the building entry status
166,000 views of testing locations
26,600 views of health guidelines
25,000 views of health care team page
1,160 digital exposure notifications
Positivity rate: Below 0.5% for 75% of days
Hospitalization and deaths: 0

App users automatically received results of their COVID-19 tests from testing locations all across campus. Building access was granted or denied based on their most recent test result. A proximity-based exposure notification feature warned users if they had been in significant contact with someone who had recently tested positive. 

The SHIELD testing and Safer Illinois app helped keep the campus community safe and healthy during the pandemic. People who tested positive were notified within 11 hours of testing to begin their period of isolation. Those who had significant exposure to individuals who tested positive were also notified. These efforts helped the campus maintain low positivity rates, with no evidence of spread within classrooms or research laboratories, and no hospitalizations or deaths. 

Other Universities and communities, inspired by the success of the SHIELD testing system, developed their own testing protocols and COVID-19 apps, based on the Safer Illinois app.  


  • Early summer, 2020: University announces plans to resume on-campus instruction for fall semester 2020. SHIELD team develops saliva testing method.
  • April 2020: Rokwire team begins development of Safer Illinois app. Code for Safer Illinois app made publicly available for other entities to use.
  • May 2020: Rokwire team solicits feedback from stakeholders and experts on app development, privacy issues
  • July 2020: Rokwire team pilots Safer Illinois app
  • August 15, 2020: Safer Illinois app is deployed for all students, faculty, and staff
  • December 2020: 82.5% of the university population (including those living away from campus) have used the app at least once.
  • Fall 2020: Other organizations begin to develop customized variants of the Safer Illinois app, with the help of service partner Rokmetro.
  • 2021: Dozens of institutions, including universities, high schools, K-12 schools, and large museums such as the Smithsonian develop and launch their own apps, based on the Safer Illinois app.
  • December 2, 2021: The University of Illinois announces that it will be moving the COVID-19 building access status from the Safer Illinois app to the Illinois app.
  • January 3, 2022: The Safer Illinois app is officially retired.

Who developed Safer Illinois?

The Safer Illinois app was developed at the University of Illinois by the Smart, Healthy Communities Initiative, Technology Services, NCSA, and Grainger College of Engineering Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering. Valuable input was contributed by the following collaborators.

Internal collaborators

  • Center for Social and Behavioral Science
  • McKinley Health Center
  • Office of the Provost
  • Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at Illinois
  • Siebel Center for Design
  • Technology Services

External collaborators

  • Inabyte, Inc.
  • Pixo
  • Champaign-Urbana Public Health District
  • OSF Healthcare

Safer Illinois technical reviews

  • Technology Services
  • Task Force on the Security of the COVID-19 Code in Safer Illinois
  • Masooda Bashir (iSchool), Nikita Borisov (ECE), Chieh-Li Chin (administrative support), Jana Diesner (iSchool/NCSA/ITI, Chair), Karrie Karahalios (CS), Robin Kravets (CS), Kirill Levchenko (ECE), Madhusudan Parthasarathy (CS)
  • Security Analysis of Rokwire Exposure Notification and Health Status Card–Andrew Miller (ECE) and CoTracer Team (ECE)
  • Rokwire Data Privacy Advisory Committee
  • Office of University Counsel
  • Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research & Innovation
  • Information Technology Accessibility Initiative
  • Siebel Center for Design

Safer Illinois and Privacy

The Safer Illinois app was built using a privacy-first approach. Here are a few ways the Safer Illinois App protected privacy:

  • Users accessed the app using their University credentials, and COVID-19 test results (also linked to users’ University credentials) were sent from McKinley Health Service to the user via the app. Test results were sent in encrypted form to users’ phones and only decrypted on their phones.
  • In Safer Illinois, test results were protected and stored on users’ phones only. The results were encrypted using public key encryption and pushed onto the user’s device with the user’s consent.
  • The app minimized the amount of data that was collected and stored, collecting only university credentials required for testing purposes.
  • Users could delete their data at any time.
  • Rokwire and the SHIELD team consulted experts in digital privacy and conducted surveys and held online town hall style meetings to get input and address potential concerns from faculty, students, mental health advocates, and leaders. There were no leaks or data breaches.

These privacy features are described in figure below, which shows the layers of data security and privacy, from the system-wide security to individual controls. 

Exposure notification privacy

For people who opted in to the exposure notification feature, phones would swap anonymous Bluetooth tokens. These tokens could not be traced to any individual or phone. When someone who opted in to the exposure notification feature tested positive, the app would send tokens from the past 14 days to a secure database. Phones would routinely download encrypted tokens of people who tested positive from the secure database. People would then get an exposure notification that they had been exposed to someone who tested positive. 

To learn more about Exposure Notification and Safer Illinois Privacy, see the following resources.

Other COVID-19 Apps

Customized variants of Safer Illinois built on the Rokwire platform have been deployed at dozens of institutions, including universities, high schools, K-12 schools, and large museums such as the Smithsonian. Some of these apps were still in use as of recently as Fall 2022. 

Rokmetro, a professional services team that customizes the Rokwire application for institutional adopters, helped customize the app. Because the Safer Illinois app was already developed and tested, institutions didn’t have to spend months developing the basic functions. By building on a Safer Illinois derivative, they were able to focus on selecting and adapting the capabilities to their unique needs.

University of Nebraska’s Heath Tuttle explained, “The Safer Communities app really saved our bacon. If we had been doing something on our own, we would not have had the functionality, the user experience side figured out. It would have taken us much longer.” By building on top of the Rokwire platform, Nebraska’s Safer Communities app was ready to deploy in record time. Because the app was concurrently being deployed at many institutions, the University of Illinois helped to build a growing community of users who could share advice and troubleshoot together.

Read more

“Mitigation of SARS-COV-2 Transmission at a Large Public University.” Ranoa, D.R. et al., MedRxiv, 9 June, 2022. Nature Communications: 13:3207.

“Safer Illinois and RokWall: Privacy Preserving University Health Apps for COVID-19.” Mailthody, V.S. et al., 17 March 2021. arXiv, e-print. 

“Good, but Not Great: Taking Stock of a Big Ten University’s Covid Plan.”Chang, K. 23 August, 2021. New York Times.

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