Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Facebook releases data tools to help researchers track impact of social distancing

The social networking giant also hopes the tools will help predict where coronavirus will spread next.

Facebook releases data tools to help researchers track impact of social distancing
2:21

Facebook has launched a set of tools that use anonymised location data collected from users in a bid to help researchers better understand where the coronavirus outbreak could spread next and the effectiveness of social distancing measures.

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The new tools, collectively called Disease Prevention Maps, are three separate aggregated datasets that provide information on how people move and interact with each other.

Facebook's decision to provide anonymised data for the COVID-19 prevention cause follows Google announcing a similar effort last week. 

Like Google's data tool, which uses smartphone location data, Facebook's new tools use data on population movements and connectedness to help researchers identify trends and patterns regarding coronavirus. 

"Facebook Disease Prevention Maps are designed to help public health organisations close gaps in understanding where people live, how people are moving, and the state of their cellular connectivity, in order to improve the effectiveness of health campaigns and epidemic response," Facebook said.

One dataset shows the probability that people in one area would come into contact with people in another area. According to Facebook, this could help forecast to researchers where COVID-19 cases may appear next.

Another dataset shows at a regional level whether people are staying near where they live or whether they have been visiting other parts of their region. This dataset was created with the aim of providing insight into whether social distancing measures have been effective.

The third dataset, called the "social connectedness index", shows friendships across states and countries. Facebook built this dataset on the logic that people who know each other are more likely to infect each other.

In conjunction with the rollout of the Disease Prevention Maps, Facebook acknowledged the potential privacy concerns of providing this data to researchers and said it has taken additional steps to anonymise people's identities. The datasets are only available to researchers that have partnered with Facebook.

Read also: How to protect your privacy from Facebook

"For example, our datasets can show information at a city or county level, not the patterns of individuals," Facebook added.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg also posted on his Facebook page about the importance of maintaining privacy principles. 

"As governments seek to use data in new ways to get ahead of this outbreak, it is important that we maintain our privacy principles and have clear policies for these kinds of use," Zuckerberg said.

Separately, Facebook has also teamed up with researchers at the Carnegie Mellon University Delphi Research Center to conduct a survey of US residents that aims to generate new insights on how to respond to the crisis, including heat maps of self-reported symptoms. Any user information accrued during the survey will be anonymised, Facebook said, with users to be named as a random ID number. 

In addition, Facebook said it would not have access to the survey responses.

From Monday, US Facebook users will see a link at the top of their Facebook news feed to the optional, off-Facebook survey. If the results are helpful, the social network said it would make similar surveys available in other parts of the world.