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New Data Tool Can Predict COVID-19 Hot Spots

By: Kayla Matthews on May 4, 2020

One of the challenging things about the COVID-19 coronavirus relates to how its most common symptoms — cough, breathing difficulties and fever — also appear for other ailments.

Many organizations are building COVID-19 data trackers to ask people how they feel. As they report on that aspect, this kind of data crowdsourcing helps public health researchers determine where the coronavirus is most prevalent. 

One such tool is COVID Near You. Here's a look at how it works, and what role data plays in its function. 

What to Know About COVID Near You

Teams from Boston Children’s Hospital and HealthMap, supported by volunteers, created COVID Near You. The tool is a sister app to Flu Near You, which tracks the spread of influenza. Both apps use big data technology to compile user submissions, thereby showing local and national views of the overall impact. 

Anyone living in the United States, Canada or Mexico can submit information through the app. They can do so for themselves or any household member but should verify that no other person in the residence did it first. 

The website also has a map showing the places where people reported COVID-19 symptoms within the past two weeks. The interactive graphic features new data after 14 days pass.

Situations exist whereby a person may want to update their submission after initially giving data to the site. For example, perhaps they since tested positive for the coronavirus. However, COVID Near You does not currently enable tweaking data after sending it through. People should wait for at least two weeks after the first submission, then send another one reflecting any changes. 

Submitting Data Through the COVID Near You App

People using COVID Near You see a simple "How are you feeling?" prompt at the top of the screen. They can either answer, "Great, thanks!" or "Not Feeling Well." A person who chooses the first option then sees a form that asks if they received a flu shot. The user also needs to give their age, gender and ZIP code. 

The options are more diverse for people who are ill. They see a screen with 17 symptoms — including one "Other" category — and need to select the ones they've experienced within the past two weeks. If a person mentions having a fever, an accompanying box asks the person to input their highest temperature, if available. 

After the symptoms screen, people go to the next page. It asks them:

  • The onset of their illness 
  • Whether they sought medical care
  • If they received a COVID-19 test
  • If they got a flu shot
  • The number of days spent in quarantine 
  • If they traveled outside of the U.S. within 14 days
  • If they've been in contact with a confirmed COVID-19 patient

A person feeling unwell must give the same identifying information as someone reporting no symptoms — age, gender and ZIP code. As of mid-April, more than 444,000 people in the United States sent information through the COVID Near You app. The app also has data from at least 397,000 people in Canada and 2,000 individuals living in Mexico. 

Real-Time COVID-19 Data to Aid Tracking

The kind of data crowdsourcing offered by COVID Near You could prove vital for helping health experts speedily curb the pandemic. Also, since the tool does not ask for information such as a person's name and address, residents may be more likely to use it. 

Kara Sewalk, an epidemiologist who helped develop the application, explained, "The public’s real-time reports of COVID-19-related symptoms can augment traditional public health tracking and help everyone understand where COVID-19 symptoms are occurring in their community. The more people join, the stronger the ‘signals’ in the data we gather."

A person can get informed without submitting information, too. Putting in a ZIP code allows seeing a color-coded map and a numerical figure representing people displaying coronavirus symptoms, and those tested for the virus within a specific area. The totals and map distribution presumably update as users provide details to the site. 

The changing numbers let everyday people gauge their risk, plus allow healthcare experts to see the hardest-hit areas, gaining information that could help them save lives. The data centers working in the background to make this tool functional are crucial, too. The creators did not explain the particular role those facilities play. Nevertheless, they likely aid in data processing and collection, efficiently making the content usable in this intensely time-sensitive situation. 

Big Data Making a Big Impact

COVID Near You is one of the many apps relying on data crowdsourcing to track the spread of the coronavirus. As the pandemic continues, people will likely see numerous other examples of such apps, and the data centers supporting the associated technologies. 


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