Facebook launches new data tools to track the spread of COVID-19

Facebook has added new functions to its recently launched COVID-19 information centre, in the hopes of supporting health researchers and non-profit organisations in the fight against the global pandemic.

The latest "Data for Good" tools include three new disease prevention map types to provide disease forecasting and offer protective measures. Co-location maps reveal the probability of people in one area coming in contact with people in another, predicting where COVID-19 infections may next appear.

Additionally, movement range trends show at a regional level whether people are staying near their homes or venturing into town, which can provide insights into whether preventive measures are heading in the right direction.

A final function, the social connectedness index, displays friendships across states and countries, which can help epidemiologists forecast the likelihood of disease spread, as well as where areas hit hardest by COVID-19 might seek support.

These disease prevention maps aggregate information from Facebook, who said it will also take further steps to obscure people’s identities and reduce the risk that anyone could be re-identified. Facebook also explained that its datasets only show information at a city or county level, not the patterns of individuals.

"Mobility data from Facebook’s 'Data for Good' programme provides a near real-time view of important correlates of disease transmission. This data, in combination with other sources, allows us to make better models to inform public health decisions," said Daniel Klein, senior research manager of the Institute for Disease Modeling.

Facebook has also launched a voluntary survey it is encouraging people in the US to partake in, which is designed to help health researchers identify COVID-19 hotspots earlier. Run by the Carnegie Mellon University Delphi Research Centre, this survey will be used to generate new insights on how to respond to the current outbreak, including heat maps of self-reported symptoms. The information gathered from the survey can help health systems plan where resources are needed and potentially when, where, and how to reopen parts of society as it recedes.

Facebook is planning to extend the survey to other parts of the world it the results are found to be helpful.

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