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Crowdsourced coronavirus tracking apps are great, but we need a more coordinated approach


As confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths escalate globally, both the public and private sectors are working toward new solutions to track — and curtail — the spread. In the past couple of days alone, at least two collaborative projects have emerged that are designed to help people report their current health status, update it if things change, and generate more data for the scientific community.

However, multiple apps that are basically setting out to achieve the same thing could lead to a duplication of effort, which raises questions over whether a more coordinated approach spearheaded by a centralized body, such as a government or NGO, would be a better approach — at least at a regional level.

Let’s Beat Covid-19

Let’s Beat Covid-19 is a not-for-profit venture that was assembled rapidly by a volunteer team led by Dr. Asif Qasim, a London-based consultant cardiologist and founder of MedShr, a social platform that connects more than 1 million doctors to discuss clinical cases and share knowledge. The Let’s Beat COVID-19 web app is basically a survey that’s setting out to understand how many people in each of the U.K. regions it covers are likely to require medical care or hospitalization if they are hit with COVID-19; have been in contact with someone with COVID-19 but don’t yet have symptoms; have mild symptoms; or have already had COVID-19.

The app guides the user through a series of questions, such as their current COVID-19 status.

Above: Let’s Beat COVID-19

It also delves into their level of isolation, in terms of whether they are leaving the house at all or going out for essentials.

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Above: Let’s Beat COVID-19: Level of isolation

Additionally, the app asks users about existing conditions, which may help establish their risk factor.

Above: Let’s Beat COVID-19: Existing conditions

At the end of the survey, users are asked to note down a code they can use to update their status in the future should they start experiencing symptoms.

Above: Let’s Beat COVID-19: Updating status

For now, Let’s Beat COVID-19 is limited to the U.K., but it will be launching in the U.S. shortly. The idea is that by completing this survey, and encouraging friends and family to do so too, medical bodies will get the data they need to forecast the demand they might have for their services in the coming weeks and months.

The organization notes:

Doctors and nurses around the world are working very hard to help patients with COVID-19. We are hearing from them that they don’t have the information they need to plan services and avert a crisis.

Let’s Beat COVID-19 said that it will use the information to understand how the situation is evolving regionally and attempt to predict what will happen next. It added, “Knowing whether the number of COVID-19 cases is going up or down in each area will help the local hospitals and healthcare services prepare and save more lives.”

Covid Symptom Tracker

Meanwhile, a collaboration between two London hospitals and Boston-based private health data science company Zoe is setting out to achieve a similar goal to that of Let’s Beat COVID-19. The Covid Symptom Tracker is a native mobile app available for Android and iOS that encourages users to self-report daily to “help slow the outbreak” and “identify those at risk sooner.”

The registration process does require the user to submit personal information such as email address, and they do have to consent to sharing their data with all the parties involved — though it insists that data won’t be used for commercial purposes.

Above: COVID Symptom Tracker app registration process

As with Let’s Beat COVID-19, the COVID Symptom Tracker app asks the user about their current health status and whether they’ve had — or been tested for — COVID-19.

The main difference here, though, is that users are requested to update their status every day to confirm whether they are still healthy or are experiencing some symptoms. Crucially, this is about ensuring that the data is up-to-date, which makes it more valuable to health professionals in terms of understanding the virus’ symptoms and tracking how it spreads.

Above: COVID Symptom Tracker app health survey

The COVID Symptom Tracker app was built in just three days, and is currently on course to hit 1 million downloads in less than 24 hours — it’s among the most downloaded apps in the U.K. today.

The research is being led by Dr. Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London and director of TwinsUK, which is a three-year-old science project that works with 15,000 identical and non-identical twins. Indeed, the COVID Symptom Tracker began as part of a coronavirus study that involved sending home-testing kits to the twins on its program, but it was later opened up to everyone (minus the home-testing element) as a way to gather data.

Numerous other trackers have sprung up in over the past month, including from Johns Hopkins University, which launched an interactive online dashboard using data from WHO, CDC, and China CDC to illustrate the current confirmed COVID-19 cases, deaths, and recoveries globally. However, Let’s Beat COVID-19 and the COVID Symptom Tracker apps are striving to get ahead of the curve and see what could be around the corner using real-time data from millions of people.

In Singapore, officials developed an app called TraceTogether, which allows the government to tap citizens’ smartphone location data to see whether they have been near anyone else that has been infected with COVID-19.

It’s clear that smartphones can be incredibly useful tools for crowdsourcing large data sets to help counter the spread of COVID-19. And while not all the apps are striving to achieve the same goal, a few — including Let’s Beat COVID-19 and the COVID Symptom Tracker — are pretty much identical in their intentions. Too many apps doing the same thing isn’t helpful, as it confuses users about which ones they should be using — and it’s unlikely that people will update or maintain their health profiles across two services. Crowdsourcing data could be a useful exercise in tracking and planning around the COVID-19 outbreak, but a more coordinated approach is needed.



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