CompSci student plunges into pandemic-related software solution

Student Yuchen Zhao works at a computer from home.
Yichun Zhao, who has been working from his apartment for weeks, is on an eight-month co-op with AOT Technologies.

For UVic student Yichun Zhao, helping develop a computer system that ensures people entering BC from outside the country are managing self-isolation was a “wild ride.”

On April 13, the BC Government launched its new internal system, which it developed in collaboration with AOT Technologies, where Zhao has been working on co-op since January. Service BC, which provides frontline support for many provincial services, needed a system that would streamline and track the complicated calling process involved for people returning to BC from other countries during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We heard about the project on Wednesday and Service BC needed its new system to go live the following Monday,” said Zhao, who is majoring in Computer Science and Health Information Science. “We didn’t sleep for two or three nights and had 4 a.m. meetings to make sure everything was working properly. It was non-stop.”

Once a person returns to BC from another country, his or her name goes into the system and the digital work flow begins. Service BC staff are alerted to the first task, which involves checking in on the person by phone. The system provides a script for staff to follow, including asking whether the person has any COVID symptoms, who they travelled with, if they have enough supplies, and so on.

The system addresses every possible scenario and, depending on the answers provided, may generate follow-up forms that will alert the correct department to contact the person again. It also has the built-in smarts to trigger automated follow-ups or escalations to handle situations such as a person in quarantine not responding or needing urgent help.

“I applied to work at AOT because I really wanted to do software development and thought I’d be able to learn more from a smaller company,” said Zhao. Since the system’s launch, Zhao and AOT staff have spent some of their time adding new features, such as a new process focused on temporary foreign workers.

“I’m really grateful that I got the job because I’m learning lots and they’ve put a lot of trust in me,” said Zhao. “As a co-op student, I couldn’t ask for more.”

When he began working at AOT, Zhao’s tasks were largely focused on the company’s open source framework product, called FormsFlow.AI. This experience helped prepare him to work on the Service BC solution, which used a similar approach.

Before the pandemic became an issue, the AOT team was already working for Service BC on another solution. Days after this project wrapped up, AOT was engaged to contribute to the COVID-19 travel isolation project, with its extremely tight deadline.

“The great cause behind it kept everyone motivated and the BC Government was really impressed with the quality of the solution that was put in place in a few days’ effort,” said Praveen Ramachandran, Director, Consulting Services at AOT.

“Yichun’s contribution was instrumental as he stepped up to take on the challenge, and we were also amazed by the dedication and commitment shown by the Service BC staff who worked along with us night and day to make this happen.”

Zhao is the third UVic co-op student hired by AOT, a Victoria-based company that has several UVic alumni on staff.

“We’ve had excellent experience with UVic co-ops in the past,” said Ramachandran. “We believe that the quality of students from UVic is significantly high and they are able to bring a very fresh perspective on things we do and the solutions and products we build.”

AOT has begun work on another COVID-related project that involves developing an online feature that will help citizens book Service BC appointments at various locations around the province.

Zhao isn’t working on this particular project, but he will continue at AOT through August, when his eight-month co-op is complete.

“I’ve heard that some students had their co-ops cancelled, so I’m very grateful that I’m still doing interesting work that has a positive impact and am also getting paid,” he said. “Especially at times such as this situation, I feel very proud of my work and the work by everyone who worked on the project.”