Facebook releases research tools to see how social distancing is working

7 Apr 2020

Image: © Nuthawut/Stock.adobe.com

Facebook has released data to researchers working to prevent the spread of the coronavirus using location data and social links.

Facebook is offering data on its billions of users to researchers across the world who are attempting to track the spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. As part of the company’s Data for Good programme, the social network said it has the means to provide better information on whether preventative measures may be working and how the virus may spread.

In a Facebook post, the company’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, said that the data will be rolled out in the US at first, but if the results are promising, the initiative would be expanded globally.

Co-location map of Italy covered in blue lines.

Co-location map showing connections in Italy. Image: Facebook

What is included

The data includes co-location maps that can reveal the probability that people in one area might come into contact with another person – if they’re both Facebook users – to suggest where Covid-19 cases might appear next.

It will also include movement range trends at a regional level to see whether people are staying near their homes or travelling further. This may suggest whether containment measures – such as where people in Ireland are being asked not to leave a 2km radius around their home – are working and lowering the spread of the virus.

A third resource being offered is the ‘social connectedness index’, which shows Facebook friendships across nations and could help epidemiologists forecast the likelihood of disease spread, as well as where areas are being hit hardest by Covid-19.

Speaking of the potential of this data, Daniel Klein of the US Institute for Disease Modeling said: “Covid-19 has inherent delays that challenge the pace at which we seek to evaluate policy impact towards a measured response.

“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.”

Map of the US showing social connectedness among American Facebook users.

Social connectedness across the US. Image: Facebook

Issue of privacy

Addressing the issue of privacy, Facebook said that specific users won’t be flagged for breaking any movement rules put in place by governments.

Zuckerberg said: “A critical part of the Data for Good programme is we’ve developed partnerships with academic researchers that enable us to produce these aggregate reports while protecting everyone’s privacy and individual data.

“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.”

Last week, Google released location data to offer insights into changes in people’s movement since Covid-19 restrictions were introduced. In Ireland, for example, it suggested there was an 83pc reduction in retail and recreation activity between mid-February and the end of March.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic