Facebook expands COVID-19 symptom tracker worldwide

Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg (Image credit: Android Central)

What you need to know

  • Facebook is bringing its COVID-19 symptoms tracker worldwide after a successful U.S. trial earlier this month.
  • The goal of the survey is to help predict hotspots before they bloom.
  • It's also intended to guide health systems as countries move towards re-opening parts of society.

The COVID-19 response has a problem that social media is uniquely positioned to help solve — a lack of data. With the public health systems of many countries being overwhelmed, knowing where a hotspot is likely to form and forming containment strategies around that is likely to be very useful to states and world governments.

Facebook is putting its wealth of data and reach to help researchers build models that can predict these hotspots. It partnered with the Carnegie Mellon University Delphi Research Center to disseminate a U.S. based survey in early April:

The survey — run by Carnegie Mellon University Delphi Research Center — will be used to generate new insights on how to respond to the crisis, including heat maps of self-reported symptoms. This information can help health systems plan where resources are needed and potentially when, where and how to reopen parts of society. If the results are helpful, we'll make similar surveys available in other parts of the world.

It seems the results were indeed found to be helpful as the company now plans to expand this project globally.

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg made the announcement on Monday in the Washington Post:

By distributing surveys to large numbers of people whose identities we know, we can quickly generate enough signal to correct for biases and ensure sampling is done properly. We're partnering with faculty from the University of Maryland to expand this survey globally, and the team at Carnegie Mellon is building an application programming interface, or API, that will let researchers everywhere access the results. We're hopeful that this will help governments and public health officials around the world who might not otherwise have this kind of precise data to make decisions in the weeks and months ahead.

As more countries begin to transition or plan their transitions out of lockdown, the more data they have that informs their decision, the more robust their plans can be. Facebook's scale and data collection practices may be worth taking a look at when the crisis is over, but there's no denying that it does have its uses.

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Michael Allison