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Facebook built a tool last year to map the spread of diseases. Now it's being used to combat coronavirus. Here's how it works.

Facebook built a tool last year to map the spread of diseases. Now it's being used to combat coronavirus. Here's how it works.
See how Facebook's Disease Prevention Maps could fight coronavirus - Business Insider

Facebook's Disease Prevention Maps are already being used by some health experts to track COVID-19. Here's what they look like and how they work.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020.(Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020.(Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)
Facebook released a tool in 2019 designed to track people's movements and demographics during a disease outbreak.
Associated Press
  • Facebook has built a tool meant to help track the movements and demographics of people affected by a disease outbreak.
  • The tool, called Disease Prevention Maps, was first released in 2019. Now, it's already being used by universities and health nonprofits for COVID-19 prevention.
  • The US government is reportedly considering asking Facebook to develop a similar tool for tracking the spread of the virus in the US.
  • Here's a breakdown of how it works.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Facebook's 2.5 billion active users give the tech company a wealth of information about where its users live, how they're moving, and their access to internet and cell service.

Now, a Facebook tool that aggregates that data could help authorities understand and fight the spread of COVID-19.

Facebook's Disease Prevention Maps tool was first released in 2019, months before COVID-19 had been identified. In the past year, it's been used to track the spread of cholera in Mozambique and to help improve vaccination rates in Malawi.

This week, as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases surged past 200,000 worldwide, the US government has reportedly turned to Facebook to aggregate similar data to track the spread of the virus. The notion has rankled privacy advocates, but Facebook insists that the data is anonymized and presented in general trends, not used to track individuals.

Laura McGorman, policy lead for Facebook's Data for Good team, said in a statement to Business Insider that researchers and nonprofits are already able to use Disease Prevention Maps for COVID-19 prevention efforts. Facebook has not made real-time maps available to the general public.

"Disease Prevention Maps have helped organizations respond to health emergencies for over a year and we've heard from a number of governments that they're supportive of this work," McGorman said. "[The maps] are built with aggregated and anonymized data that people opt in to share, to understand and help combat the spread of the virus."

Here's a breakdown of what Facebook's Disease Prevention Maps look like and how they work.

Disease Prevention Maps are capable of showing movement by aggregating data from people using Facebook apps on their phones with location services enabled.

Facebook disease prevention greater london map
Facebook

This map, from 2019, shows trends in movement between London and surrounding areas over the course of a day.

Facebook also compiles population density maps using a mix of data aggregated from its platform, satellite images, and census data.

mozambique nrp header
Facebook

This map shows the density of people over the age of 65 in Mozambique. Mapping demographics like this can help healthcare experts identify at-risk areas.

The 3rd type of map Facebook offers shows the density of network coverage in specific areas, which is meant to help health service organizations plan how to distribute information and aid.

democratic republic of the congo 3g network coverage map
Facebook

This map, published by Facebook in 2019, shows 3G network coverage across Congo.

Facebook has aggregated high-resolution population density maps and made them publicly available.

tanzania map_women reproductive age
This map shows the density of women ages 18-49 in Tanzania.
Facebook

Facebook's database of high-resolution population density maps is available via the Humanitarian Data Exchange

Facebook insists that the data used for its Disease Prevention Maps is anonymized, relying only on data that's de-identified and aggregated.

Facebook
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

Privacy advocates have recoiled at the idea of a sweeping partnership between tech companies and governments, especially the prospect of the US government building a database of people's movements based on data from platforms like Facebook.

Anonymous White House sources working on a collaboration with Facebook to combat COVID-19 told The Washington Post that, if the project moves forward, it would not involve a government database.

The maps are already being used for COVID-19 prevention by organizations including Harvard's School of Public Health, National Tsing Hua University, University of Pavia, Direct Relief, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

harvard
The shiny toe of the John Harvard Statue in Harvard Yard at Harvard University.
Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters

"One of the most important pieces of information we need to respond to epidemics is where people are moving. This kind of data can be integrated into our epidemiological models to help us estimate how quickly a disease might spread, and where to put resources to contain it," Caroline Buckee, a Harvard School of Public Health professor, said in a statement shared by Facebook.

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