New Effort Uses Smartphone Data Collection To Track COVID-19

Researchers at UC San Francisco have launched a new COVID-19 tracking effort allowing adults with a smartphone anywhere in the world to participate. The project builds on the university’s long-term experience using mobile apps to collect health data from a far-flung base of users.

The initiative, known as the COVID-19 Citizen Science Center (CCS), is intended to gather data that will help UCSF researchers better understand the factors behind how the virus affects individuals and populations. The program relies on a smartphone app created for this purpose.

According to CCS co-leader Gregory Marcus, MD, MAS, who serves as a professor in the UCSF Department of Medicine, data gathered by the app could help the researchers understand how the virus is spreading and discover ways to cut down on new infections.  “Social distancing keeps many protected, but joining together to contribute data will help us beat this thing,” Marcus told a UCSF publication.

The researchers hope to see more than 1 million individuals around the world enroll in the effort, which requires only that participants download the mobile app. To boost the chances of this happening, the research team is specifically asking each participant to recruit at least five others.

When they enroll in the study, participants will be asked to respond to an initial 10- to 15-minute survey about their health and daily habits. From that point onward, they’ll get follow-up questions either by push notification or text message, which should involve five to 15 minutes per week of effort.

In addition to answering questions, study participants will also have an option to offer almost continuous geolocation data and eventually, additional data harvested from Fitbit or other Bluetooth-enabled biomonitoring devices. The data drawn from the biomonitoring devices may include blood pressure, weight, blood oxygen levels, body temperature, exercise levels and sleep patterns

In launching the program, UCSF is leveraging its experience with the Health eHeart Study, which describes itself as the “study to end heart disease.” (Researchers are conducting the research in collaboration with the American Heart Association.) The project, which was launched in 2013, uses online efforts, smart devices and mobile tools to collect and analyze cardiovascular data. These sources include smartphone apps, portable blood pressure cuffs and ECG smartphone cases.

Having gathered useful experience from the Health eHeart study, USCF was able to win funding from NIH when the agency decided to set up a nationwide center for mobile health research. The result of its efforts is Eureka, a mobile app-focused health research platform supported by cloud-based databases that can process dense data streams from millions of study participants. To date, UCSF has hosted 28 studies on Eureka.

To jump-start the new project, UCSF is starting by recruiting study subjects from the base of nearly 250,000 Health eHeart participant base. Researchers believe that having become used to answering survey questions and sharing personal medical information, they are well prepared to join the CCS effort and invite others.

About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.