Local tech company and MTSU partner for contact tracing study

Travelers wait for ride share vehiclest. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Travelers wait for ride share vehicles. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Ride-sharing company Hytch and Middle Tennessee State University’s (MTSU) Data Science Institute partnered for a study showing the Hytch Rewards could be used as a contract tracing app and as a way to significantly reduce traffic congestion.  

In 2018, Hytch, a Midstate social impact technology company, hired MTSU to study data from the Hytch Rewards app in order to find how commuters were using the service. The company sought to reduce traffic congestion and pollution through ride sharing, carpooling or use of public transit.

Dr. Charles H. Apigian, co-director of the Data Science Institute at MTSU, headed the study on how to give commuters incentive to reduce single-occupancy rides. Nissan initially sponsored testing by providing commuters with a five-cent-a-mile incentive. Apigian’s team then gradually decreased the monetary incentive in order to test to what degree commuters would continue to use the app. Apigian concluded that a two-cent-per-mile incentive was enough to keep sustained usage of the app. In other words, said Apigian, $3.54 a month per the average 14-mile trip is a small price to pay. 

“If you were a company that wanted to incentivize your employees, $5,000 per month could incentivize 1,500 users at two cents a mile,” said Apigian. 

While COVID-19 makes ride sharing challenging, Hytch redirected their efforts, transitioning the app from a ride-sharing platform to a mobility platform. 

“The missing link in the between safe work sites and safe home sites is how do we get there. How do we track intelligently our mobility decisions?” said Mark Cleveland, Hytch CEO.

Mark Cleveland, CEO of Hytch (Photo: Facebook)
Mark Cleveland, CEO of Hytch (Photo: Facebook)

While initially creating the app to reduce the environmental impact of traffic, the pandemic gave Hytch an opportunity to reframe the idea. Cleveland states that the mobility-tech app can use location data to track location and proximity. While using Hytch Rewards, commuters can see how long they’ve been in a particular area and will occasionally be reminded to continue social distancing practices while providing a social distancing “score.” In theory, the app’s ability to collect data on commuter’s proximity will facilitate contact tracing. 

“It’s just an opportunity for us to say ‘Hey, one of the behaviors we want to reinforce is physical distancing and here’s a reminder to maintain your space,’” said Cleveland. 

The question is, said Cleveland, whether people are willing to share data to save the community. 

Cleveland addresses the issue by stating that data collected from commuters is encrypted.

The company Commuters Trust, in collaboration with Hytch, offers a 50-cent-per-mile incentive and hopes to provide options in underserved areas. Commuters Trust Director Aaron Steiner reports they’re currently working on partnerships that will allow them to provide rides for the unemployed.

“Long-term recovery from  COVID will depend on more access and safer mobility options,” said Steiner. 

 Using this data, Hytch hopes to incentivize employers or local governments to provide the incentive for commuters to continue ride sharing.

Former Maryland governor and 2016 Deocratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley addressed the issue during a Thursday webinar with Cleveland and Apigian.

“There’s nothing about what Hytch does that tells people they must elect to behave in this better way for society, but there’s something ingenious about the ability of Hytch to be able to provide nudges, provide rewards, set rules that advance the common good,” said Malley, who took steps to reduce greenhouse gas emission while governor. 

Hytch Rewards offers the app, Carbon Zero Commuting, for free. The platform that tracks tailpipe emissions and determines how many tons of carbon credits Hytch and partners will purchase to make a trip carbon-neutral.