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COVID-19: QF university researchers develop ‘disease detective’ mobile game


By Muhammad Muneeb Ur Rehman

Five COVID-19 research projects awarded university grants, including a contact tracing mobile phone app game.

Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU) Innovation Centre has announced results of the latest cycle of its Rapid Response Innovation Call — a research project looking for ways to combat the effects of COVID-19 on society.

The project called on researchers and inventors from the worlds of engineering, technology, life sciences, social sciences, law, communications and the arts where more than 30 proposals were received from the QF community. Having previously awarded funds to a tracking bracelet called Hazm by QNRF, five other proposals have now been awarded grants by HBKU. Amongst them

Dr. Sara Solaiti: Disease Detective — a Mobile Game About Contact Tracing
Dr. Spencer Striker, Northwestern University in Qatar
Dr. Anto Mohsin, Northwestern University in Qatar

Developing Testing Kit for COVID-19 IgG/IgM Detection
Dr. Nour Majbour, Qatar Biomedical Research Institute, HBKU

Chronic Patients Support (CP-Support)
Dr. Zubair Shah, College of Science and Engineering, HBKU
Dr. Raian Ali, College of Science and Engineering, HBKU
Dr. Dena Al Thani, College of Science and Engineering, HBKU
Dr. Tanvir Alam, College of Science and Engineering, HBKU

COVID-19 Misinformation and Social Networks Analysis in Qatar
Wajdi Zaghouani, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, HBKU

Reimagining Education Beyond COVID-19 With Virtual Embodiment
Mona Kassem, Virginia Commonwealth University School of Arts in Qatar

Disease Detective — a fun way to learn

The mobile app will allow players to survive a pandemic through a character-driven simulation, where a character could be a disease detective. According to Mohsin and Spencer, it will also offer a suspenseful adventure that includes a narrative, puzzles, and an interesting way to understand the challenges of disease control.

“There’s so much there: high stakes time pressure, compelling character and narrative, perplexing puzzles, and of course the natural gameplay dynamics that emerge from network science and contact tracing,” Spencer told Doha News.

Inspired by the protagonists in Contagion (2011), the researchers decided to go with a female doctor as the main character of the game. They hope that this game will inspire students — both women and men — to develop an interest in science, medicine, technology, and public health!

Sample design from the upcoming mobile application, Dr. Sara Solaiti: Disease Detective

The game aims to train users about the importance of contact tracing, which is a key weapon in the epidemiologist’s arsenal. It uses the fun setting of a mobile phone app game to introduce the important work of epidemic intelligence service officers — or ‘disease detectives’. Like investigators at a crime scene, these disease detectives search for the cause of disease, identify people at risk, and determine how to control its spread and prevent it from recurring.

According to Anto, “Contact tracing work is important in all infectious diseases. Thus, many of the terms used in contact tracing (e.g. fomites, vector, R0, index patient, case, contact) are applicable in many communicable diseases including COVID-19.”

Contact tracing apps have been a topic of discussion around the globe as they are reported to infringe on the privacy of their users. The proposed game plans to change that.

“People feel that the currently in-place apps are being imposed upon them. Dr. Sara doesn’t infringe on the privacy of the users and can be used as a complementary, fun resource to spread awareness especially among the millennials,” Dr. Ali told our staff.

A final demonstration version of the application, which received an HBKU innovation grant of QAR 100,000, is expected to be ready for trial in December 2020.

With research and development already underway, professors Anto Mohsin and Spencer Striker will be working alongside immunologist Ali Sultan, of Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar and HBKU, with additional support from Hamad Medical Corporation.

Dr. Anto Mohsin is an expert in public understanding and engagement in science and promoting science literacy. He is the recipient of two Qatar National Research Fund grants and has been exploring the scientific culture in Qatar since 2016.

Dr. Spencer Striker is a specialist in digital media production and design, and creator of the award-winning, next-generation digital book “History Adventures, World of Characters”. He is the founding creative director of Galxyz, a Silicon Valley games and learning startup, and the recipient of four Webby Awards.

Dr. Ali Sultan is an Associate Professor in the Microbiology & Immunology Department at Weill Cornell Medicine in Qatar (WCM-Q). He has received funding from many agencies including NIH, Qatar National Research Foundation, Howard Hughes and Ellison Medical Foundation.

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