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Got a Smartphone? You can Help Researchers Understand COVID-19

Want to help advance scientific knowledge about coronavirus? Just pick up your mobile phone.

At the end of March, UCSF medical researchers launched a crowd-sourced epidemiological study, COVID-19 Citizen Science. The study will supply insight into how the COVID-19 virus spreads, predicting its spread and what strategies can decrease infection numbers.

So far UCSF researchers have signed up over 17,000 participants. Researchers are hoping to for a million or more participants, according to Noah Peyser, Scientific Program Manager at UCSF. The more people participate, the more likely that results will be statistically sound.

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There are participants all over the world, but right now most are in U.S. Of those who’ve signed up, 60 percent are women and 20 percent are healthcare workers. To date 31 Santa Clara citizen scientists have signed up.

“The key things we’re hoping to learn are what are the risk factors and what modifications by individuals can mitigate those risks,” Peyser explained.

“All of these are things about COVID-19 that we don’t know. We can find out how many of these factors predict risk and tell people who are at risk how to minimize that risk.”

The survey works through a mobile app that you download to your smartphone. After you sign up you’ll be prompted to answer questions about your health and social distancing, which takes 10 to 15 minutes.

After that you’ll get a one-minute daily survey about basic health and social behavior. Weekly, participants receive a different survey about testing; and monthly there’s a survey about mood, anxiety and economic impacts. The study will track participants for six months.

You can also opt in to allow the app to capture location information — to monitor the impact of movement on containing the illness as well as whether you go to the hospital.

The app is built on the National Institute of Health’s health research platform, Eureka (info.eurekaplatform.org), which provides a mobile app for collecting information. Behind that app are massive databases and algorithms for identifying connections, correlations and patterns in the data as well as different ways of analyzing the data.

Peyser says that one of the things that enable researchers to build the trust that’s needed for this kind of research is Eureka’s security practices, as well as UCSF’s independent security review board.

“We take privacy and security very seriously,” said Peyser, “and system security is regularly strictly overseen by the review board.”

Data security goes beyond standard medical HIPAA* requirements, he explained. Research data is stored behind multiple layers of security, intrusion detection software, and encrypted both when it’s being transmitted and stored.

The only requirements to participate are a smartphone and being over 18. Download the app to your smartphone from the App Store, Google Play store, the website  (covid19.eurekaplatform.org) or by texting “COVID” to 41411. Visit the website to see a real-time map of participation.

*U.S. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996

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