The Foundation for a Meaningful Life
Kindergarten - Grade 9 in Southborough, MA
Fay Magazine: Summer 2020

Tracking the Virus - Joshua Fang ’16

by Daintry Duffy Zaterka '88
When a Harvard classmate reached out to him about joining the implementation team at COVID Safe Paths, a contact tracing platform created by an MIT Media Lab professor, Joshua Fang knew that he had found a place where his particular talents and skills could make a difference.
When COVID-19 forced Harvard freshman Joshua Fang ’16 to pack up his dorm room in March and return home to quarantine with his family, he was frustrated.

It wasn’t just the unexpected disruption to his first year of college. It was the feeling that he needed to contribute something productive to help the situation, even though he wasn’t sure what that should be.

Some of Joshua’s friends living in urban areas were delivering meals and masks. But in suburban Hopkinton, Massachusetts, the needs were different. “In the beginning, I had to restrain myself because I wanted to think about where I could best use my skills and experience to do something meaningful,” he says. When a friend from Harvard reached out to him about joining the implementation team at COVID Safe Paths, a contact tracing platform created by an MIT Media Lab professor, Joshua knew that he had found a place where his particular talents and skills could make a difference.

Joshua has always been interested in using technology to solve problems. After eighth grade, he moved to Taipei, Taiwan for one year with his family. While a student at Taipei American School, he led the development of EasyPickup, a software-based solution to reduce traffic congestion in the school’s pickup areas. He also led a team of six interns to develop a collaborative learning game for Bonio Inc., an edtech startup based in Taipei. When he moved back to the U.S., Joshua brought his problem-solving skills to Deerfield Academy, where he designed and developed the Deerfield Athletics app, a full-featured sports center for alumni, coaches, parents, and students where they can track game scores, browse team schedules, read game recaps, and live-stream games. In his first six months at Harvard, Joshua was already finding ways to hone his analytical skills as a reporter for The Harvard Crimson and as an associate at the Harvard College Consulting Group. For Joshua, the opportunity to work with COVID Safe Paths was the perfect blend of aptitude and moment, using technology to solve a critical problem with the potential to benefit the greater good.

Contact tracing is a tried-and true approach to infection containment and will be an essential step in limiting the spread of COVID-19. Contact tracers reach out to infected individuals and interview them by phone to determine where they have been and who they have been in contact with to track and hopefully limit the spread of infection. However, human memories are notoriously faulty. The COVID Safe Paths App was designed to augment the tracing process with specific location data. The idea is that people will download the app to their phone, where it runs in the background anonymously, pinging their location every 10-15 minutes. That data stays private until a user chooses to share it. If that individual becomes infected with the virus, they can choose to upload their locational history (redacting any private locations) to give contact tracers a more precise record of exactly where the virus may have spread. App users can also be notified if they have crossed paths with someone who later tests positive. “In theory, this leads to more efficient containment,” says Joshua, “and gives public health officials an even better sense of where outbreaks are occurring.”

The work with COVID Safe Paths added a healthy dose of challenge to Joshua’s spring semester workload. “It’s been a different kind of experience for me because I’m learning to work on a team where the objectives are constantly changing. There are different regulations based on the outbreaks in each country, and the situation shifts multiple times a day,” he says. Joshua’s team is working on outreach to airlines and airports, two potential focal points of virus transmission, to try to convince them to adopt the app as their recommended platform. While there is plenty of competition in this field, COVID Safe Paths is a completely free and open source platform, so the mission feels collaborative rather than competitive. “There’s no profit incentive,” says Joshua. “We’re just trying to marshal all the people out there who care about contact tracing to collaborate with us.”

As a college freshman, Joshua recognizes that this kind of real-world experience is rare and invaluable. However, he has also found that the opportunity to do impactful work every day is helping him handle the emotional impact of the pandemic. “It has quickly become obvious that this is bigger than our college experience,” says Joshua, “and it feels good to know that everything I’m doing matters and will hopefully make a difference in helping society and the economy to reopen.” 

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