NEW YORK - Facebook likely knows a lot about you already. So would you fill out a survey on the social media site about how you are feeling today?
What if that information could help researchers and officials navigate the current pandemic? If it meant local businesses, parks and beaches might reopen sooner rather than later, would that make a difference?
That’s the idea behind several efforts to tap into people’s social media and internet use to find hot spots and forecast outbreaks of the virus well before hospitals are inundated.
As society begins to open up after months-long closures, government officials are looking for leading indicators — data that may forecast that an outbreak is coming — to help them make key decisions about what to open and when.
One indicator is through a symptom survey created by Carnegie Mellon University researchers. The survey appears at the top of a person’s Facebook newsfeed and asks whether he or she has experienced COVID-19 symptoms including fever, cough and shortness of breath.
The survey is live globally through a partnership with the University of Maryland and is very active in the U.S.
“We're getting something like 150,000 responses a day,” said Laura McGorman, a Facebook policy lead.
Carnegie Mellon researchers update the data daily on the university's COVIDcast website. Visitors to the site can look at specific counties by date and by data set.
“The real-time estimates we’ve derived correlate with the best available data on COVID-19 activity,” Ryan Tibshirani, co-leader of Carnegie Mellon’s COVID-19 Response Team, said in a statement.
The information “gives us confidence that we may soon be able to give health care officials forecasts” several weeks into the future, he said.
Map of changes
Facebook is also sharing user mobility data with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, helping researchers create a map of daily changes in population movement by state and county. People using Facebook’s mobile app with the location history turned on contribute to this data.
Policymakers can use this information to understand how communities are responding to physical distancing measures and whether additional measures may be needed.
Researchers caution that datasets are merely another layer of information pointing to possible trends in the disease’s spread. They’re not conclusive on their own.
“No matter where you are in the world, hopefully some aspect of our data can be useful in a response,” said Facebook’s McGorman.