Facebook Releases Detailed U.S. COVID-19 Symptom Map

Facebook and Carnegie Mellon surveyed millions of Facebook users

Facebook and Carnegie Mellon ran an important COVID-19 survey that may provide the clearest picture yet of potential infection across the U.S.

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The keys to beating the COVID-19 Pandemic are social distancing, testing, and, perhaps, lots of data. That is, at least, the considered opinion of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg who along with Carnegie Mellon University released the initial results of its U.S. Symptom Survey based on the responses of millions of Facebook users. Zuckerberg announced the results and release of interactive maps on Monday in The Washington Post.

How did they do this: Earlier this month Facebook updated its Data for Good Program and launched a survey with Carnegie Mellon University that asked respondents about COVID-19-like symptoms.

'The world has faced pandemics before, but this time we have a new superpower: the ability to gather and share data for good.' - Mark Zuckerberg

Why did they do this: As Zuckerberg wrote in The Washington Post, symptoms like loss of smell, fever, and difficultly breathing can be a precursor to more serious symptoms and hospitalization, "Better data can help governments determine where to send resources such as ventilators and personal protective equipment," he wrote.

What about privacy: The survey data all went directly to Carnegie Mellon. Facebook then took the aggregate data to generate the maps. In Zuckerberg's op-ed, he stresses the importance of collecting data in a way that protects privacy and human rights. "Fighting the pandemic has required taking unprecedented measures across society, but it shouldn’t mean sacrificing our privacy," wrote Zuckerberg.

A snapshot of the Facebook & Carnegie Mellon University COVID-19 Symptom Map.  Facebook

What the data says: While it appears to show virus hotpots, the map, which will be updated daily, is not an illustration of actual virus cases. Instead, it's a map of people with reported COVID-19 symptoms (you can zoom in to your own county). Facebook hopes, with the help of the University of Maryland, to expand the symptom map globally. Carnegie Mellon is building an API that researchers can uses to tap into the data.

Why Facebook: Zuckerberg contends that its access to billions of people around the world puts it in a unique position to help health and research professionals tackle outbreaks and build recovery plans. It is notable that Zuckerberg makes no mention of the recent and unprecedented collaboration between Apple and Google. The two companies are building a Contact Tracing system, which could, if people opt-in and share infection details, help people quickly identify when they've come in contact with an infected person.

Bottom line: Many have called COVID-19 a silent enemy, but the data may speak louder than words. Whatever you think of Zuckerberg or Facebook, this is one time where the price of your data is not another ad sold, but, potentially, another life saved.

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