CovidWatcher App from Columbia University Tracks Coronavirus Hot Spots in NYC

Five members of the Data Science Institute (DSI) and other collaborators across Columbia University have developed and launched CovidWatcher, an app that surveys users about their exposure to the coronavirus, symptoms, access to medical care, and impact on daily life. The data will be used to track the spread of the coronavirus in New York City, giving citizens real-time information about hot spots and enabling health care officials to deploy resources where needed most.

The app takes a citizen science approach to fill critical gaps in our knowledge of COVID-19. At what point do mild cases start to become more severe? Do specific medications like ibuprofen and estrogen therapy prolong or protect against symptoms? How do other medical conditions affect the progression of symptoms?

“We’re asking the citizens of New York City to become scientists and join our team by using the app to report their symptoms, daily activities, and concerns,” says project lead Noémie Elhadad, an associate professor of biomedical informatics at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and DSI member. “In return, we will give them insights about the impact of the pandemic on the city.”

The data collected through the app will help guide decisions about how to organize the city’s response to the pandemic: What are the obstacles to social distancing experienced by New Yorkers? Which neighborhoods are becoming the next hot spots? How is the pandemic affecting the emotional well-being of New Yorkers?

CovidWatcher asks users to provide information about their location, symptoms, and other top concerns. Users with fitness devices may also track their steps, heart rate, and body temperature. Several measures are employed to protect user privacy, including a geofence that provides a rough estimate of the user’s location and determines if a person is within 200 meters of their home location or has traveled outside the 200-meter perimeter.

The app differs from other coronavirus apps and trackers because it encourages users to update their status daily or weekly, providing critical information as the pandemic continues to evolve. It also includes anonymous surveys on concerns about education, access to resources, transportation, and mental health in multiple languages. Web-based surveys are available for those who do not have the app.

Data collected by CovidWatcher will be used to construct interactive visualizations in real time, mapped onto census tracts, and accessed via the CovidWatcher website. Infectious disease experts at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and public health officials can use the visualizations to monitor trends and plan accordingly.

Ester Fuchs, professor of public affairs and political science and director of the urban and social policy program at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and DSI member, is working with community organizations that represent New York City’s high-risk and underserved populations to ensure that the data are reliable and inclusive. This will enable city officials, policy makers, and medical centers to better coordinate their response during and immediately after the pandemic.

CovidWatcher’s principal investigators are Elhadad; Olena Mamykina, Florence Irving Associate Professor of Biomedical Informatics, Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and DSI member; Nicholas Tatonetti, associate professor of biomedical informatics in systems biology and medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and DSI member; and Jason Zucker, instructor of medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians. Co-investigators are Fuchs and Suzanne Bakken, Alumni Professor, Columbia University School of Nursing, professor of biomedical informatics at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, and DSI member.

— Robert Florida, Data Science Institute

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