University students worried by spiralling COVID-19 infection rates develop online tool to track local spread of virus Region of Peel

University students worried by spiralling COVID-19 infection rates develop online tool to track local spread of virus

A group of university engineering science students, led by Mississauga’s Shrey Jain, found themselves with some unexpected down time following the cancellation of classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So they decided to develop a software application designed to track and uncover new cases of the novel coronavirus.

The result is, an online tool that uses mapping capabilities at a hyper-local level to identify the potential spread patterns of the novel coronavirus. This colour-coded “heat map” is populated using user data, identifying those who have and might have contracted the virus, with each new entry added to a database that could be used to assist researchers already tracing potential COVID-19 cases. Utilizing machine learning, the tool seeks to use key data points and the ability to model information to help create a stronger understanding of local infection rates, and possible spread patterns, explains Jain, the group leader, a University of Toronto engineering student who contributes to the project while working from his Mississauga home.

“We know there’s a huge need for tracing the rising infection rate now that we know there are [COVID-19] cases in the community,” Jain told The Pointer this week. “This information is really important if we want to flatten the curve [of infection].”

Mississauga resident and U of T student Shrey Jain


About two-dozen fellow students, including some from other Canadian universities, and a few senior advisors are helping the Flatten team fine tune the tool as the spread of COVID-19 threatens to rapidly increase in communities across Canada over the coming weeks.

The number of confirmed Mississauga cases has jumped from 67 on Friday to 174 by Wednesday. Contact tracing can be a crucial tool to help identify potential spread before it happens, in the race to stop the virus from crossing the tipping point, when the ability for containment is lost.

This window is rapidly closing. Jain and his peers are trying to help win this life or death race.

Anyone accessing the Flatten heat map for the first time is prompted through an anonymous questionnaire to share personal data mirroring that obtained from online self-assessment tools for COVID-19 used by public health authorities: current medical symptoms, recent travel history, age and the first three characters of their residential postal code. 

Once the questionnaire is filled out, the user can access the heat map, zooming all the way down to their postal code for a sense of what’s happening locally. The map has separate views depicting cases already confirmed and more crucially for investigators, says Jain, where specifically infections as yet undetected might occur.

For example, in the case of the Mississauga postal code L5B, located in Cooksville, the map shows 41 potential COVID-19 cases based on the data collected from 872 users (as of Wednesday evening) who entered this postal code prefix. 

A screen grab of the map that shows localized potential infection data based on user input.


The health authority for Peel Region has acknowledged COVID-19 infections are increasingly occurring through community transmission, indicating a more widespread presence of the virus than what the confirmed number of cases indicates.

“We have also in the last two weeks confirmed that community transmission is now occurring in our region,” said Peel’s interim medical officer of health, Doctor Lawrence Loh, during an emergency meeting of the Regional Council last week. “Like many other jurisdictions in the Greater Toronto Area, this means that COVID-19 is now here in our community and chains of transmission are happening...which are not linked to travel abroad. They are linked to residents here who have fallen ill from exposures that they have encountered.”

Over the last week, Peel Public Health has reported infection spikes for both Brampton and Mississauga, as well as a rise in Caledon, with 302 cases (with seven additional ones that are pending information) now confirmed in the region, as of April 1, including one death, compared to 69 total cases a week ago.

Peel COVID-19 infections as of April 1

The Flatten heat map, Jain hopes, will potentially be able to identify future spread and help health officials coordinate a response, using the data-driven application to curb local infection now spreading by community transmission.

While almost 320,000 entries were inputted into the map (as of Wednesday evening) since the site went live last week, Jain cautions the collected data is not enough for health investigators to rely on it and accurately assess local rates of infection. 

“What’s there is accurate to a degree, but we don’t have enough of it,” said Jain. “Could [health authorities] act upon the data? Yes, but they have to be very cautious.”

The group hopes the map receives at least one million entries which would provide a much better sense of the infection rate, and even the spread patterns.'s colour-coded heat map tool


“We can map all the information in the world but if we want to help the GTA or Canada, we need to understand the data from a more granular level,” said Jain, adding that the group is fine tuning the source data being gathered and how it is used. 

Since classes were suspended in mid-March and mass quarantines instituted across the country, the group has had to collaborate remotely on the project, holding meetings via videoconferencing and other online methods of communication.

The group was inspired by investigative efforts in Asian countries like South Korea and Singapore which have employed contact tracing methods to uncover additional COVID-19 spreads beyond those known to be occurring, using the findings to test, isolate and treat patients to help contain the virus.

South Korea, for example, has relied on contact tracing through mass testing for infection. By the end of March, the country had been able to conduct over 410,000 tests. 

Relying on its expertise, the group, which includes software developers, machine learning and data designers and engineers, examined how those countries made use of virus identification methods, and to see how the use of technology could assist with investigations happening in Canada.

Within the span of five days, according to Jain, the team had created a usable application, and has since attracted the attention of the likes of Google Canada, which has provided online hosting support. The group also has a number of academic advisors for the project who are mentoring their young charges and providing expertise for the work.

Global health researcher Dr. Shafi U. Bhuiyan is one such advisor, volunteering his time and expertise to the project, providing feedback on the online questionnaire. 

While Bhuiyan believes that there can be greater application for the data compiled through Flatten, he thinks its true potential lies in serving as an example for how public health authorities could use crowdsourced data to better focus investigative efforts and move quickly to locate and contain infection from spreading.

“The students made this tool to gather information,” said Bhuiyan, who holds teaching posts at both the University of Toronto and Ryerson University. “If you have the information, you can make a decision [on how to respond to COVID-19 cases]. 

“[Flatten] is not the solution of the pandemic, it is a way to start to think how we can plan for one in a coordinated way.”


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