Remember all those times Facebook asked to know your location? Or when you searched for “flu symptoms” and filled out an online symptom checker? These same tech tools are now being used to inform, track and even predict the coronavirus pandemic.
All of the large tech companies are working on some kind of COVID-19 effort. Some companies have partnered with government agencies and some with university researchers. Each project has a slightly different goal, with some hoping to track and predict where the virus will be and others meant to educate and keep people informed.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) teamed up with Apple to create a COVID-19 symptom checker app. The app, available on the App Store or online, screens people online who are concerned about symptoms.
It asks about current symptoms, pre-existing conditions, contact with people who have been exposed and more to give users information about what steps to take. If, for instance, you answer the questions saying that you have no symptoms or exposure, but live in an area where the virus is widespread, the app suggests you practice social distancing and provides tips like what symptoms to watch for. Each result also states plainly whether a user needs a test for COVID-19.
For people who may have been exposed or are experiencing symptoms like COVID-19, the app directs them to self-isolate and monitor for symptoms or contact their doctor if they have pre-existing conditions.
The app is meant to keep people informed about the virus and help them decide what steps to take depending on their health or exposure.
This week, Facebook began surveying users about COVID-19 symptoms for a research project with Carnegie Mellon University. Researchers will compile the survey data along with Facebook location data to create heat maps of self-reported symptoms.
The research may also help health systems prepare for outbreaks and potentially forecast where outbreaks may happen next. The research group at Carnegie Mellon working on this project, the Delphi Research Center, focuses on epidemiology forecasting and conducts flu forecasting every year.
Facebook is also sharing location data with partners in 40 countries to track how the virus is spreading and whether stay-home orders are working.
Alphabet’s health company Verily received a durge of attention in late March for its COVID-19 online screening tool. The tool is similar to Apple’s symptom checker app, but goes further to connect users directly with testing centers.
In late March, President Donald Trump called out Verily’s project, which was still in its early launch phase and only available to residents of two California counties. The surge of interest crashed the screening tool.
But the tool has since expanded. It is now available in more locations (still only in California) and has implemented automated scheduling for users to set up drive-thru COVID-19 tests.