A few sporadic attempts have been made to exploit crowd-sourced symptom self-reporting as a way to potentially forecast and monitor COVID-19’s progress in the U.S. and around the world. A new initiative looks like the most extensive, well-organized and credibly supported yet — and it’s been partly built by co-founder and CEO Ben Silbermann of Pinterest.
Silbermann and a team from Pinterest enlisted the assistance of a high school classmate, and CRISPR gene-editing pioneer / MIT and founder of Harvard Broad Institute, Dr. Feng Zhang, to create what Silbermann called a “bridge between people and scientists” in a press release. The result is the How We Feel app created by Silbermann along with Zhang’s input and a long list of well-respected public health, c.
How We Feel is a free-to-download smartphone app available for both iOS and Android, built to make self-reporting very simple whether or not they feel fine — and if they feel unwell, what symptoms they encounter. It also asks for details on whether you have been screened for COVID-19 or not, and whether you are in self-isolation, and how long. The amount of interaction needed is deliberately simplified to make it easy for everyone to participate every day, and in a minute or less, to do so.
The app does not request or collect information such as name, phone number or email address. This requires an up-front request for users to agree to contribute their information, and the collected data will be aggregated and then shared with researchers, public health practitioners, and physicians, including those who are signed on as project partners, as well as others (and the project invites partners to reach out if they are interested). Part of the project team is specialists in the field of differential privacy, and one goal of the initiative is to ensure that the information of individuals is used responsibly.
As already stated, the How We Feel app is one of many similar initiatives out there, but this approach has a range of advantages compared to existing projects. Firstly, it’s a mobile app, although others rely on web-based portals that are less convenient for the average user, particularly if you want to continue to use them over time. Second, they inspire usage by positive means — Silbermann and his wife Divya will provide a donated meal to non-profit Feeding America for up to 10 million meals each time a person first installs and uses the app.
How We Feel is structured as a fully autonomous, non-profit entity and aims to extend its global availability and scientific collaboration. It’s an ambitious undertaking, but also one that could be critically useful to complement research efforts and other ways to monitor the progress and path of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 spreading.