To help track the coronavirus, Facebook will survey US users on whether they’re feeling any symptoms related to the illness.
Starting today, the company will roll out the voluntary survey at the top of Facebook News Feed. None of the responses will be sent directly to Facebook; the information will be shared with health researchers in their attempt to identify new virus hotspots.
“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,” Facebook said in a blog post on Monday. “This information can help health systems plan where resources are needed and potentially when, where and how to reopen parts of society.”
Specifically, the information may be helpful in determining where ventilators are needed, and whether certain cities or US states should tighten or loosen shelter-in-place orders, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a related post.
“Since experiencing symptoms is often a precursor to going to the hospital or getting more seriously ill, if this works, it can produce a weekly map that may help more accurately forecast how many cases hospitals will see in the days ahead, as well as an early indicator of where the outbreak is growing and where the curve is being successfully flattened,” he added.
The survey will also be conducted without knowing your identity. So even though the pop-up for the questionnaire will contain your name, Facebook says it isn’t sharing information about who you are with health researchers. Only a random number ID will be assigned to your survey results.
For now, the survey is only being made available for some users in the US. “(But) if the results are helpful, we’ll make similar surveys available in other parts of the world,” the company added.
Disease Prevention Maps
The social network has already been trying to help researchers track the coronavirus by offering them access to “disease prevention maps,” which can show how millions of Facebook users are moving throughout the world, and thus potentially spreading the illness.
Map to show probability rate of contact among Facebook users in the US.
This may sound creepy, but researchers are only getting an aggregate view of movement across cities or counties, which is proving to be useful. “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,” Facebook added in today’s blog post.
The new disease-prevention maps can now show the probability people in one area of a country will come in contact with another, which could help predict new hotspots for the virus. Whether people are staying at home can also be tracked by calculating the total amount of movement Facebook users are making across counties in California or provinces in Italy.
An additional feature will let researchers see how far friendships can extend across a country.
Map on how far Facebook friendships can extend in the US.
The data-sharing is similar to what Google is doing; last week, the company began tapping its location-tracking features to also help researchers see whether people are observing social distancing rules across 131 countries. To preserve people’s privacy, Google is stripping away individual details, and offering only line graphs, showing the aggregate increase or decrease in foot traffic for places like retail shops, transportation hubs, and residential homes.
In Google’s case, the company has made the data accessible to anyone. However, Facebook has decided to only share the disease-prevention maps with nonprofits and health organizations.
“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,” the social network added. “We will continue to be transparent about our approach and consult with policymakers, regulators and other privacy experts about our practices.”