CovidWatcher App Tracks Coronavirus Hot Spots in NYC,
Aids City Response On Resource Deployment

Researchers from Columbia University have launched CovidWatcher, an app that surveys users about their exposure to the new 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.

DBMI associate professors Noémie Elhadad, PhD, Lena Mamykina, PhD, and Nicholas Tatonetti, PhD, are principal investigators in this project, while several students in the department served as collaborators.

The app takes a citizen-science approach to filling in some critical gaps in our knowledge of COVID-19 including:

  • 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 know that certain groups, like the elderly and those with preexisting conditions, are at greater risk, but we don’t know much about those with mild symptoms who are self-isolating at home,” says infectious disease physician Jason Zucker, MD, another principal investigator in this project. “The app will allow us to zoom in on these populations so we can figure out how to better serve them going forward.”

The data collected through the app will help guide decisions about how to organize the city’s response during the pandemic:

  • What are the obstacles to social distancing that New Yorkers experience?
  • Which neighborhoods are becoming the next hot spots?
  • When the first wave of the pandemic subsides, what are the patterns of recurrence of symptoms throughout the city?
  • How is the pandemic affecting the emotional well-being of New Yorkers?

“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 Elhadad. “In return, we will give them insights about the impact of the pandemic on the city,” 

CovidWatcher differs from other coronavirus apps and trackers because it encourages them to update their status daily or weekly, providing critical information as the pandemic continues to evolve. The app also includes surveys on concerns about education, access to resources, transportation, and mental health.

“We hope CovidWatcher can help residents of our city voice their needs, concerns, and challenges related to the crisis and become advocates for their local neighborhoods and communities,” says Mamykina.

The app asks users to provide information about their *location, symptoms, and other top concerns. For users with certain fitness devices, the app can capture users’ steps, heart rate, and body temperature.

CovidWatcher offers web-based surveys for those who do not have the app. Surveys are anonymous and offered in multiple languages.

Nicholas Tatonetti
Lena Mamykina
Noémie Elhadad

Data collected by CovidWatcher will be used to construct interactive visualizations in real time, mapped onto census tracts in New York City 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.

“Our frontline workers in the hospital, in city government, and at the corner market are facing unprecedented dangers every day,” says Tatonetti. “CovidWatcher is a way for the rest of us to give back by providing data to help guide resources to the most important challenges facing our city.”

Ester Fuchs, urban and social policy expert at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and co-investigator on the project, is working with community organizations that represent the 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.

* The app employs several measures 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 CovidWatcher Principal Investigators:

  • Noémie Elhadad, PhD, associate professor of biomedical informatics at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and member, Columbia University Data Science Institute
  • Lena Mamykina, PhD, Florence Irving Associate Professor of Biomedical Informatics, Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and member, Columbia University Data Science Institute
  • Nicholas Tatonetti, PhD, associate professor of biomedical informatics in systems biology and medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and member, Columbia University Data Science Institute
  • Jason Zucker, MD, instructor in medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians

Co-Investigators:

  • Suzanne Bakken, PhD, RN, Alumni Professor, Columbia University School of Nursing, and professor of biomedical informatics at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons
  • Ester Fuchs, professor of public affairs and political science and director of the urban and social policy program at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and member, Columbia University Data Science Institute
  • Desmond Upton Patton, associate professor of social work; associate dean of curriculum innovation and academic affairs; courtesy appointment in department of sociology
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