New Smartphone Solution for Social Distancing Developed

SPACER App in the Acute Medical Unit, GUH, from left, Dr Lyle McVicker, Dr Jessica Heneghan, Dr Donal Rafferty, and Professor Derek O’Keeffe
May 05 2020 Posted: 14:13 IST

App being trialled by healthcare workers before being made available to general public for phase one of Government’s reopening plan

Researchers at NUI Galway’s Health Innovation via Engineering (HIVE) Lab, led by Professor Derek O’Keeffe, have developed a new smartphone app to help with social distancing. As recommended by the World Health Organisation, one of the basic principles in minimising the spread of this infectious disease is social distancing. It is currently suggested that people should have a space of at least 2 metres around them to reduce the chance of respiratory spread of the disease from person to person. 

‘SPACER – The Social Distancing App’ aims to reduce the problem of person to person spacing by harnessing ubiquitous smartphone technology and a novel algorithm which uses the Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) protocol, to alert hospital staff if they are less than 2m from each other via a vibration alarm. The system is currently being evaluated at Galway University Hospital and will thereafter be available for the general public.

Following this evaluation, The SPACER app will be made available for download for phase one of the government’s plan to reopen Ireland on May 18th.   The app vibrates when someone else with the Spacer App on their phone (or with Bluetooth enabled) is less than 2m for over one minute. If the SPACER app vibrates, then the person can either move further away from someone nearby or suspend the alarm for 10minutes if it was not possible to move straight away, for example health care workers performing a clinical procedure.

Professor of Medical Device Technology at NUI Galway and Consultant Physician University Hospital Galway, Professor Derek O’Keeffe said: “Implementing the 2 metre social distancing can be difficult to manage in busy work environments such as hospitals, and it is vital that frontline staff stay adequately distanced to ensure that they do not spread the virus between themselves. Unfortunately globally to date healthcare workers are the occupation that have made up the largest percentage of people affected by the COVID19 pandemic due to their clinical work and their working environment. Therefore we urgently need an active and dynamic solution to help this vulnerable cohort and the general public to maintain social distance.”

“The approach to managing COVID19 with digital health solutions can be thought of like fire safety, our SPACER App is like fire prevention – trying to prevent people from staying in contact too close and for too long”, continued Professor O’Keeffe.

Dr Ramona McLoughlin, Clinical Director – Medicine Saolta Group and Gastroenterologist at Galway University Hospitals, added: “Maintaining social distancing is particularly challenging in health care settings, particularly a busy acute hospital like University Hospital Galway. The SPACER App will help staff be more aware of their proximity to their colleagues and help them, where possible, maintain the 2 mt distance and help protect themselves, their colleagues and our patients.”

The SPACER App is currently being used by doctors and nurses working in the Acute Medical Unit (AMU) of Galway University Hospital.

Dr Colin Davenport, Acute Medical Unit Consultant at University Hospital Galway said: “Following distancing guidelines as much as possible is a vital part of controlling this pandemic. By making health care professionals aware of when they are getting too close to others around them the SPACER app has the potential to significantly reduce any spread of coronavirus amongst staff and patients, and ultimately to prevent more cases of COVID-19 emerging.”

HIVE Lab collaborators involved with developing this innovative digital health solution include: Mark Cahill, Grainne Conefrey, D. Kevin Johnson, Dr Spyridoula Maraka, Conor McGuire, Garry McNulty, and Jerico Pingul. More details on the project can be found at


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