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Facebook, Google coronavirus surveys may soon predict outbreaks, researchers say

Data from surveys run on Facebook and Google could be used to track and even predict the spread of coronavirus, officially called COVID-19, according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced on Monday that the survey would be expanding worldwide to gather more data for scientists.

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Researchers have been running surveys on both the Facebook and Google platforms asking users to voluntarily answer questions about their symptoms, the symptoms of others in their household, and their demographic information. Carnegie Mellon says that millions of people responded to the surveys and provided them with invaluable data that could be used to estimate the real-time spread of the virus.

“I’m very happy with both the Facebook and Google survey results,” Ryan Tibshirani, co-leader of Carnegie Mellon’s Delphi COVID-19 Response Team and associate professor of statistics and machine learning, said in a statement. “They both have exceeded my expectations.”

The researchers are receiving around one million survey responses per week through Facebook; last week they received nearly 600,000 responses per day through Google Opinion Rewards and AdMob apps.

The results of the survey will be made publicly available through the COVIDcast and Data for Good websites, which show the percentage of people estimated to have symptoms on a map of the U.S.

One major finding from a preliminary analysis of the data is that self-reported coronavirus symptoms, like those submitted by the survey respondents, correlate closely to the levels of the disease found by testing. This means asking people to report their symptoms could be a viable, fast, and affordable way to roughly track the spread of the disease.

The researchers say that, in combination with other data sources such as confirmed test results and medical claims, survey data could be used to forecast cases up to several weeks in advance. This information could help hospitals and first responders to prepare for increases in patients in their region by anticipating how many new cases are likely to develop in a given area.

The founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, penned an opinion piece for The Washington Post on Monday about the importance of getting accurate data about coronavirus cases, saying that, “with a community of billions of people globally, Facebook can uniquely help researchers and health authorities get the information they need to respond to the outbreak and start planning for the recovery.”

Zuckerberg said Facebook was partnering with the University of Maryland to expand the survey to all its users across the globe, and that Carnegie Mellon researchers would work on an API to let other scientists access the results.

“We’re hopeful that this will help governments and public health officials around the world who might not otherwise have this kind of precise data to make decisions in the weeks and months ahead,” Zuckerberg wrote.

For the latest updates on the novel coronavirus outbreak, visit the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 page.

Digital Trends is keeping a close watch on the latest developments in COVID-19 treatment and prevention tech, and we’ll update this page continually as new information becomes available.
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