A-list tech engineers team up with Boston Children's Hospital on coronavirus tracking tool

The new tool aims at collecting data from people in their homes.
By Laura Lovett
04:30 pm
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Looking to better track the spread of the novel coronavirus, a team of engineers from some of Silicon Valley's most notable companies has joined forces with Boston Children's Hospital's Chief Innovation Officer John Brownstein on a new tool dubbed covidnearyou.org. The platform aims to gather data from people at home and report it back to public health organizations like the CDC.

"[We] were thinking about how participatory surveillance could be valuable, and especially in the light of the lack of testing and having a say in what happens in the community," Brownstein told MobiHealthNews.

Since the platform launched on Sunday night, over 50,000 users have entered their symptoms and location. When a user goes to the site, they are asked if they are healthy or sick, about their flu shot status, and their zip code. Those reporting that they feel ill are asked additional questions about symptoms and travel history.

This tool builds on another of Brownstein's projects, "flunearyou," which was first launched in 2011.

"Many people get sick and don't get seen by a physicians, so it never gets to public health [officials]. People are feeling ill but they never report it," Brownstein said. "We thought, why not create a platform where people can contribute about respiratory illness, starting with the flu as an example. The idea is crowd sourcing that information to get insights that are very different than the traditional healthcare data."

However, the coronavirus tool had to be built quickly, and designed to give users specific updates about the spread of the disease. That was where the engineers from the major tech giants came into play.

"We encountered a bunch of volunteer engineers from Google, Amazon and Airbnb, and many others ... who were working to build something very similar, so we connected and thought, let's deploy this incredible set of people on 'covidnearyou,'" he said.

He noted that the engineers took on this project in addition to their day jobs.

The more users enter data, the more valuable the tool becomes, he said.

WHY IT MATTERS

The coronavirus is quickly spreading across the United States. The World Health Organization's latest situation report counts 31,573 cases in the U.S. and 332,930 worldwide.

Governments and public health organizations have been working to track new cases and prepare health systems.

THE LARGER TREND

This isn't Brownstein's only mapping efforts, he has also been working on a tool called HealthMap.

“[It's] this idea that there is all this information online and we can capture events ahead [of time using] what might be reported through these networks, social media, chatrooms … our work is focused initially on early signs of a disease,” Brownstein told MobiHealthNews in February. “That is what we did with the coronavirus and found some signs on local news, chatrooms. ... We’ve been working with an international team to do some crowdsourcing of identification of key words and metadata.”

HealthMap recently teamed up with chatbot Buoy Health to share information back and forth.

“Because we have a good sense of underlying risk, we can push that information to Buoy, and that can help them fine-tune their algorithm and fine-tune their decision support tools,” Brownstein said. “But the reverse is also true – they are collecting symptom data from consumers that can point to signals for disease contamination.”

Another effort includes a team from Johns Hopkin’s Center for System Science and Engineering, who released a new live dashboard that integrates information from the WHO and CDC to track the virus in real time. The dashboard includes information about cases by region and country, as well as the deaths. The information is displayed in a map and in corresponding charts.