Data for Good: New Tools to Help Health Researchers Track and Combat COVID-19

By KX Jin, Head of Health, and Laura McGorman, Data for Good

Update on April 20, 2020 at 3:15AM PT:

Today Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Delphi Research Center made public the initial results of their US symptom survey we promoted on Facebook. Using aggregate data from Carnegie Mellon, Facebook produced its first report and new interactive maps, which we plan to update daily through this outbreak. Mark Zuckerberg wrote in the Washington Post about how surveys like this can be an important tool in fighting COVID-19 and announced that we’re working with faculty from the University of Maryland to expand the program globally.

Original post published on April 6, 2020 at 12PM PT:

Flattening the global COVID-19 curve is a challenge that takes all of us. As people distance themselves to protect their communities and healthcare workers save lives on the front lines, hospitals are working to get the right resources, and public health systems are looking to put the right guidelines in place. To do that, they need better information on whether preventive measures are working and how the virus may spread.

As part of Facebook’s Data for Good program, we offer maps on population movement that researchers and nonprofits are already using to understand the coronavirus crisis, using aggregated data to protect people’s privacy. We heard from them how valuable this information can be in responding to COVID-19, and today we’re announcing new tools to support their work:  

  • Three new types of Disease Prevention Maps to help inform disease forecasting efforts and protective measures 
  • A prompt on Facebook encouraging people in the US to participate in a voluntary survey from Carnegie Mellon University Delphi Research Center designed to help health researchers identify COVID-19 hotspots earlier

Providing New Tools for Disease Prevention 

Our Disease Prevention Maps are aggregated sets of information that health researchers can use to better understand how population dynamics influence the spread of disease. Researchers and health experts around the world have advocated for more of this information to respond to the pandemic, so today, we’re sharing three new tools:

Co-location maps reveal the probability that people in one area will come in contact with people in another, helping illuminate where COVID-19 cases may appear next.

Co-location patterns, like these in Italy, can help disease modelers determine how COVID-19 might spread.

Movement range trends show at a regional level whether people are staying near home or visiting many parts of town, which can provide insights into whether preventive measures are headed in the right direction.

Movement range trends, like these for Brazil, show whether people in different regions are visiting many areas.

The social connectedness index shows friendships across states and countries, which can help epidemiologists forecast the likelihood of disease spread, as well as where areas hardest hit by COVID-19 might seek support.

This map shows how connected parts of the US are to the East Village, NY, on Facebook, revealing how social ties may help communities combat and recover from the crisis.

Disease Prevention Maps aggregate information from Facebook, and we take additional steps to obscure people’s identities and reduce the risk that anyone could be re-identified. For example, our datasets can show information at a city or county level, not the patterns of individuals. You can read more about our approach to protecting people’s privacy on our Data for Good site

“COVID-19 has inherent delays that challenge the pace at which we seek to evaluate policy impact towards a measured response. Mobility data from Facebook’s Data for Good program provides a near real-time view of important correlates of disease transmission. This data, in combination with other sources, allows us to make better models to inform public health decisions.”

– Daniel Klein, Ph.D., Institute for Disease Modeling

Launching a Survey for Health Researchers to Track COVID-19

Starting today in the US, some people will see a link at the top of News Feed to an optional, off-Facebook survey to help health researchers better monitor and forecast the spread of COVID-19. 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.

CMU Delphi Research won’t share individual survey responses with Facebook, and Facebook won’t share information about who you are with the researchers. To help them measure results while protecting your privacy, we’ll share a random ID number that CMU will send back to us when someone completes the survey. Then we’ll share a single statistic known as a weight value that doesn’t identify you but helps correct for any sample bias.

Building a Global Network of Research Partners 

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve partnered with dozens of trusted organizations to use Disease Prevention Maps to aid relief efforts. These partners include universities like Harvard School of Public Health in the US, National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, and University of Pavia in Italy, as well as nonprofits and institutions such as Direct Relief, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the World Bank. These partners have established the COVID-19 mobility data network, a global coalition to provide real-time insights from Facebook’s Data for Good tools. This network is already actively supporting the response around the world.

“Measuring the impact of social distancing policies is absolutely critical at this stage, and aggregated data of this kind provides insights that protect individual privacy but are actionable for policymakers and researchers building predictive models.”

-Caroline Buckee, Associate Director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health

Protecting Privacy

Facebook and the wider technology industry can — and must — continue to find innovative ways to help health experts and authorities respond to this crisis, without trading off privacy. Our Data for Good tools are designed to protect your information, and we have public guidelines on how we respond to government requests for data. We will continue to be transparent about our approach and consult with policymakers, regulators and other privacy experts about our practices.

Read more about Facebook’s work to support global health experts, local governments, businesses and communities affected by COVID-19.



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