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Expanding support for COVID-19 research through the Symptom Surveys

With more than 2 billion people on the Facebook app, we are in a unique position to support COVID-19 research. In partnership with Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and University of Maryland (UMD), Facebook users are invited to participate in a survey that asks about how they are feeling, including any symptoms they or members of their household have experienced and their risk factors for contracting COVID-19. Sampled users receive the invitation at the top of their News Feed, but the surveys are conducted and collected off the Facebook app by our partners. Facebook does not collect, store, or receive survey responses, and university partners do not know who took the survey. The surveys may be used to generate new insights on how to respond to the crisis, including forecasting and modeling efforts.

Offering the symptom survey datasets to academic and nonprofit researchers with a privacy-minded approach enables experts to generate more impactful insights to aid public health responses. Facebook and partner universities created a centralized webpage for researchers with more information about the symptom surveys and how they can use the data for their research.

Enabling COVID-19 research with new data sets

Aggregated survey data

To support ongoing COVID-19 research and to help inform public health decisions, CMU and UMD made the aggregated data from these surveys publicly available. Facebook and institutions around the world are using aggregate data to create COVID-19 maps and dashboards to help international policymakers and health researchers better monitor and forecast the spread of COVID-19 and improve their response to the pandemic.

Non-aggregated survey data for research purposes

Facebook and partners also now offer a portal to provide eligible academic and nonprofit institution researchers with information about how to request access to non-aggregated survey data for research purposes. Signed data use agreements are required for access to non-aggregated survey data from CMU and UMD.

The sharing of non-aggregated data is intended to help facilitate more advanced modeling and forecasting efforts by researchers aiding public health responses around the world. Interested academic and nonprofit researchers can submit a request here.

A privacy-first approach

Facebook and our partner universities designed the symptom surveys with privacy in mind from the start. Facebook doesn’t share who took the survey with university partners, and they don’t share individual survey responses with us. When non-aggregated survey data is shared with eligible academic and nonprofit institutions, Facebook shares a single statistic known as a weight value, which doesn’t identify a person but helps researchers correct for any sample bias. This helps ensure that the survey sample more accurately reflects the characteristics of the population represented in the data. Read more about the survey methodology here.

Working toward a solution — together

Global challenges require global solutions. This is why it’s important for us to create new tools and empower researchers to aid public health responses during this pandemic.

Our goal is for researchers to be able to leverage this new data for analyses and share insights with public health officials. Symptom survey data can also be used in combination with other data sets and sources (for example, population density and disease prevention maps offered through our Data for Good program).

“It has been very rewarding to leverage our faculty expertise in survey methodology and social data science to help connect researchers world wide with such invaluable data in real time. Our discussions with the WHO and many other organizations show clearly the need for this information.” says Dr. Frauke Kreuter, the director of the Joint Program in Survey Methodology at the University of Maryland.

“We’ve been pleased with the quality of the survey data we are amassing with Facebook’s help,” said Dr. Ryan Tibshirani, co-director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Delphi Research Group. “This type of real-time information about COVID-19 symptoms is hard to find and it’s proving invaluable to our research team as we build forecasts of disease activity.”

Sharing the symptom survey data with academic and nonprofit researchers around the world allows regional experts to generate impactful local insights. Facebook and our partners welcome feedback from researchers on the usefulness of the survey data and any other suggestions for how this effort could make a greater difference.

“When it comes to solving global challenges, such as tracking the spread of COVID-19, we need to empower experts all over the world,” says Dr. Curtiss Cobb, Director of Demography and Survey Science. “Global challenges require global solutions. This is why it’s important for us to create new tools and empower researchers to aid public health responses during this pandemic.”

For any questions related to the symptom surveys, please reach out to COVID19symptomsurvey@fb.com. Watch our webinar with UIDP here.

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