Facebook unveils tools to help researchers fight coronavirus spread

Data maps will help track and predict spread of disease

Photograph: Johanna Geron/Reuters

Photograph: Johanna Geron/Reuters


Social network Facebook is to make new data available to researchers who are tracking and fighting the coronavirus pandemic.

The new data tools could help indicate where new cases of Covid-19 will appear next, if the restrictions put in place are effective, and forecast the likelihood of the disease spreading.

It is part of Facebook’s Data for Good programme, which already offers maps on population movement to researchers and non-profits seeking to understand the coronavirus crisis.

Based on feedback from these researchers, Facebook said it had created three new types of disease prevention maps. Co-location maps will show the probability of people in one area coming in contact with people in another; movement range trends will show if people in a region are staying home or travelling to different parts of a town; while the social connectedness index will map friendships across states and countries.

“Flattening the global Covid-19 curve is a challenge that takes all of us,” Facebook said in a post. “Our Disease Prevention Maps are aggregated sets of information that health researchers can use to better understand how population dynamics influence the spread of disease.

The information for the maps is collected from Facebook’s mobile app users who have opted to share their location history with the social network. Facebook said for those who opted not to turn on location history, the service would not build a history of “precise locations” received through Location Services.

The data is being used by researchers around the world, and a number of its European partners are using the tools to investigate Covid-19, including the University of Pavia, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Politecnico di Milano, and University of Southampton.

“Covid-19 has inherent delays that challenge the pace at which we seek to evaluate policy impact towards a measured response,” said Daniel Klein, Institute for Disease Modelling.

“Mobility data from Facebook’s Data for Good programme provides a near real-time view of important correlates of disease transmission. This data, in combination with other sources, allows us to make better models to inform public health decisions.”

Facebook said it used a number of methods to shield people’s privacy when building data products such as the maps, including aggregation, which draws insights from the total number of people in a particular geographic region, rather than from individuals; and smoothing, which combines population estimates for sparsely populated regions with nearby areas.

The company also said it followed legal procedures such as data-sharing agreement to ensure the data is only shared with specific organisations and for specific purposes.

Facebook has fallen foul of privacy advocates a number of times in recent years. The social network found itself at the centre of a data breach scandal in 2018 when it emerged Cambridge Analytica had used personal Facebook user data acquired from an external researcher, using it without their consent for political advertising.