Facebook rolls out three new COVID-19 related health tracking maps

The new maps will be able to look at co-location, movement and social interaction data.
By Laura Lovett
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This afternoon Facebook announced its latest coronavirus-focused efforts, which includes the rollout of three new maps to its Data for Good program aimed at tracking the potential spread of the disease. The Menlo Park company will share the maps, which are based off aggregated Facebook data, with research and public health organizations.

“You really need accurate information on population movement to understand how an infectious disease might spread,” Laura McGorman, Data for Good, told MobiHealthNews. “In this particular case we need to understand how populations are or are not moving around in response to large scale preventative measures – things like social distancing and stay at home orders.” 

The first map is a co-location map, which is aimed at figuring out the probability that different Facebook users will come into contact with each other in person.

“These are maps that estimate the probability that different populations will come in contact with each other,” McGorman said. “So, if you want to understand the extent in which the coronavirus might spread from New York City to the suburbs of New Jersey, understanding the rate of co-location or populations mixing between those two groups is a critical insight.” 

The second map is called a “Movement Range Map.” This map will show if people are staying near home on a county-by-county level, and it also shows if people are still moving a lot. 

“If you take a look at that, you may be better able to understand if communities that still have high rates of essential workers, or you might be able to take a look at the extent to which people are still having to travel long distances to go to the pharmacy or grocery store. So, we’ve created insights and a movement range map to answer those questions,” McGorman said. 

The last map, called the “Social Connectedness Map” is focused on insights around Facebook connections (i.e. Facebook friends) across geographic lines. The company said this could be key to understanding where the disease could spread, and also where folks are looking for support.

“What many researchers have found is that social capital is a really important way to understand if communities are resilient after a natural disaster, as well as something like a pandemic,” McGorman said. “So, what we are really hoping is that, that data set in particular is informative for thinking about from an economic perspective how communities recover from this pandemic.” 

The maps are made up of various Facebook data points. McGorman stressed that all the data is aggregated, and users' data will remain private throughout these efforts. 

Today, Facebook also announced the news that it would be working with Carnegie Mellon University’s Delphi Research Center. As part of the efforts, Facebook users can opt into a survey, run by the research center, about possible symptoms and ways they are responding to the pandemic. An individual’s results will not be shared with Facebook, according to a statement released by the company. 

WHY IT MATTERS 

The World Health Organization reports 1,133,758 cases of the coronavirus worldwide. Organizations all over the world are working on ways to track and halt the spread of the disease. Facebook pitches this effort as a way for research institutions to see how different initiatives are working in curb the spread of the disease, and also to track new cases. 

“We’re partnering with universities in every region of the world who are all answering similar but, I think, different questions depending on the particular nature of the pandemic,” McGorman said. “Researchers in Italy I think are looking very closely at the extent to which stay-at-home orders are being taken up by the population, and then what does that mean as they come over the curve? I think everyone is curious about when is enough, enough, and when is it OK to relax social distancing? I think that is at the top of a lot of our researchers' minds.” 

THE LARGER TREND 

Facebook’s Data for Good has been around for over three years, but it started out looking at natural disaster. 

“We started our work in 2017 with a handful of partners and a small set of maps to try to answer the question of whether or not we could share privacy-preserving data in near real time with nonprofits and researchers who were responding to natural disasters,” McGorman said. 

The first efforts began with disaster maps and looked at how many people are still displaced from their homes. However, Gorman said the social media giant quickly identified disease tracking as a new need. 

“What we found over a year and a half of working with natural disasters was many of the real-time insights that we could generate and share in a privacy-preserving way with nonprofits had a disproportionate value during public health emergencies,” she said. 

This isn’t Facebook’s first effort in the coronavirus epidemic. In early Februarythe company announced it was working with a network of third-party fact-checkers to review information and remove any false information about the virus. 

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