When the coronavirus pandemic began, Boulder resident Jenny Wanger soon found herself out of work. She had been a project manager for a parking services company before the company laid off 30% of its employees.
But it didn’t take long for the Boulder newcomer to discover what would come next. Wanger has for more than a year been working to develop technology that has a measurable impact on public health.
She co-founded what is now called Linux Foundation Public Health, a technology-focused organization that helps public health authorities across the world combat coronavirus. She serves as director of programs and worked to develop coronavirus exposure notifications, which are used in Colorado and across the country and world.
Exposure notifications, which launched in Colorado in October, are a free and voluntary service developed in partnership with Google and Apple that can notify users of possible exposure to COVID-19.
According to the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, by opting in, a person’s device will share anonymous tokens with other users using the phone’s Bluetooth. If a user tests positive for coronavirus within a 14-day period, a notification is sent to those in close proximity.
For Wanger, it’s been exciting to be involved in the project in Colorado, which has been a leader in exposure notification technology.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Wanger was always “on.” The work felt endless. A year into it, she’s learned to find some balance and she’s started to see the fruits of her labor.
A recent study, for example, indicated that the United Kingdom’s National Health Service exposure notification application prevented nearly 600,000 infections.
“Being able to work on scalable technology that impacts people’s lives has been just super gratifying,” Wanger said. “The hard thing really has been finding that balance so that I can keep going for the long haul.”
James Snell, who heads Linux’s technical advisory committee, agreed that it’s been a gratifying experience, particularly considering that those who work in the software industry often do not have a chance to see the impact of their work.
Due to the pandemic, he’s yet to meet Wanger in person. They’ve only convened by phone or video. Still, her commitment to the work shines through.
“The one thing that has always struck me is just her level of dedication to it comes through in every conversation,” he said.
“My experience working with her has just been absolutely phenomenal,” Snell added.
Privacy has been a big concern since the outset of the project. The system is one that was designed with privacy as its first priority, Wanger said. The data is stored cryptographically and the system does not use location services.
Snell noted that equity is a concern as well, and the team has been focused on finding solutions that ensure all people have access to exposure notifications since some people do not have phones.
Moving forward, it’s not as if the need for exposure notifications will suddenly vanish. Plus, Linux is working to develop other technologies such as vaccine credentials that allow a person to indicate whether they’ve had the coronavirus vaccine without giving up personal health information.
“Our goal overall is to provide a useful technology stack for public health authorities around the world, which means more than just the pandemic,” Wanger said.