Facebook has outlined its latest efforts to assist health authorities in combating the spread of COVID-19, with its 'Data for Good' initiative providing a range of location tracking and individual connectivity maps which can help to highlight key areas of concern, and better prepare for influxes before they overwhelm local health systems.
Facebook says that it's providing three types of data tracking tools to assist authorities - first, Facebook is providing co-location maps, which highlight "the probability that people in one area will come in contact with people in another, helping illuminate where COVID-19 cases may appear next".
The blue lines here indicate people movements, based on location tracking on mobile devices. The more blue lines, the more people are traveling between each region, increasing the risk of the virus' spread.
Facebook''s also providing data on movement range trends, which indicate whether people are staying home and adhering to lockdown orders, while it's also providing "social connectedness" maps:
"The social connectedness index shows friendships across states and countries, which can help epidemiologists forecast the likelihood of disease spread, as well as where areas hardest hit by COVID-19 might seek support."
The map essentially highlights how many people in each region are connected to others within their local vicinity on Facebook. As you can see here, the data indicates that people in New York have many more connections within that region, which could lead to more rapid disease spread due to social engagement.
The insights could provide health authorities with a critical head-start on potential outbreaks and increases, enabling them to prepare local providers and resources ahead of time. That could become increasingly important in the months ahead - once we reach the peak in case numbers and look to ease back movement restrictions, keeping tabs on new flare-ups could help in avoiding new lockdown measures by responding quickly to concerns.
And while there are various concerns about the use of user data to help track the spread of COVID-19, there's little argument as to its benefits.
Through location data, provided by digital platforms, various Asian nations have been able to better contain the virus, and limit its impacts, but they've often done so in ways that many would see as infringing on people's rights. In Taiwan, for example, officials been using a system which monitors the movement of people who've been diagnosed with COVID-19, based on their mobile device data, and alerts authorities if they attempt to leave their house, or switch off their phone.
That type of individual data tracking causes great angst amongst privacy advocates, particularly with respect to the longer-term ramifications, and the ways in which such processes can be used to monitor and limit people remotely. And this is just the tip of the iceberg - what if authorities called for more information access, for personal search histories, Facebook Likes - insights that be highly indicative of people's psychological state, personal preferences, weaknesses, etc.
The depth of digital data now available carries with it significant responsibility for the platforms - because in the wrong hands, it can shift opinion, and facilitate damaging movements on a broad scale, while also enabling intricate profiling of any individual. That's a very dangerous area to be moving in - and you can understand, then, why privacy advocates are sounding the alarm bells right now.
Facebook's mapping data, in this instance, is anonymized and aggregated, so there are no personally identifying aspects to the information being provided. But it is inching closer to that next stage. Clearly, there's practical value in trend and migration insights like this, but the platforms are right to be cautious in their facilitation of any such requests.
On another front, Facebook is also looking to help health authorities better map COVID-19 symptoms and potential cases via user surveys, which will appear in News Feeds from this week.
As explained by Facebook:
"Starting today in the US, some people will see a link at the top of News Feed to an optional, off-Facebook survey to help health researchers better monitor and forecast the spread of COVID-19. The survey - run by Carnegie Mellon University Delphi Research Center - will be used to generate new insights on how to respond to the crisis, including heat maps of self-reported symptoms."
The surveys will gather feedback from Facebook users as to any symptoms they might be experiencing, which, if used on a large enough scale, could help to indicate potential areas of concern by correlating COVID-19 outbreaks and their symptoms, and alerting authorities to relative increases in the same.
The idea is that by gathering data on symptoms being experienced, and mapping them by region, researchers can get ahead of any future outbreaks by recognizing patterns - an increase in COVID-like symptoms coming from a certain town, for example, could trigger an alert for health authorities to ramp up mitigation efforts to limit any potential spread.
Facebook's variation will likely have more success, given that it's within Facebook, though the impact, as noted, will be relative to user take-up. If more people self-report their symptoms, the data trail solidifies - but if few take it up, the insights won't be indicative enough of relevant shifts.
These are the latest in Facebook's ongoing efforts to combat COVID-19 and reduce its impacts, while also showcasing its platform as a tool for social good, and connecting the public. Definitely, Facebook's reach puts it in a unique position to be able to share accurate, timely information with wide audience, and with extra tools and initiatives like these being implemented to assist, it's underlining its position as a key utility, a key tool in tackling the many issues related to the pandemic.
Of course, Facebook is also combating various misinformation campaigns and attempts to mislead the public, but on balance, it's hard to argue that the platform hasn't been a force for good thus far amid the outbreak.
You can read more about Facebook's COVID-19 tracking maps, and view them for yourself, here.