Facebook releases data that could help forecast the spread of coronavirus


Facebook is once again offering researchers aggregated user data to help combat illness.

Image by Pixabay/Illustration by CNET

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Facebook is providing researchers with more anonymized location data that could help them figure out if people are staying at home and forecast where the novel coronavirus will likely spread next.

The move shows how the social network is using the trove of data it collects from its nearly 2.5 billion monthly active users to help combat diseases such as COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus. It’s in line with how Facebook has used data in the past to create disease prevention maps aimed at combating contagious illnesses such as the flu that can be spread through human contact.


Some Facebook users in the US might see this survey at the top of the News Feed. Participation is optional.


The use of location data might make some users uncomfortable given the privacy scandals that have plagued the world’s largest social network. Facebook said it doesn’t identify individual users and provides aggregate information at a city or county level. Google also announced last week that it was using location data to help researchers see if people were social distancing.

On Monday, Facebook unveiled three new types of disease prevention maps unveiled three new types of disease prevention maps as part of its Data for Good program. One map shows the probability that people in one area will come in contact with people in another. That could help researchers determine where new COVID-19 cases will pop up next. Another map shows if people in certain regions are staying home, helping researchers figure out if social distancing mandates are working. The third map shows friendships across states and countries, information that could also help track the possible spread of COVID-19.

Facebook is also teaming up with Carnegie Mellon University Delphi Research Center, which is conducting a 3- to 5-minute survey that asks people to report their symptoms and locations to help track the spread of COVID-19. Some Facebook users in the US will see a link to this optional survey at the top of their News Feed.

Facebook said the university won’t share survey responses with the social network. Facebook also said it won’t share information about a user’s identity with the researchers and instead will use a random ID number.

Facebook has also been sharing data with Harvard University’s School of Public Health and National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan to help them forecast the spread of the coronavirus.

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