Crowdsourcing COVID-19

New website tracks user-reported symptoms in real time

Screen shot of a person in bed with a thermometer beneath the question, "How are you feeling?" and the options "Great, thanks" or "Not feeling well"
Image: COVID Near You

This article is part of Harvard Medical School’s continuing coverage of medicine, biomedical research, medical education and policy related to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and the disease COVID-19.

News about the global COVID-19 pandemic changes virtually minute by minute. Beyond staying home, handwashing, and covering your cough, you may wonder what you can do to help.

A new website, COVID Near You, developed by researchers at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, offers one way to assist.

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As confirmed cases and deaths from COVID-19 mount, testing for the virus remains limited in the United States. Researchers, public health experts and government officials are still struggling to understand how many people are infected locally, statewide and nationally.

COVID Near You invites the public to report current symptoms in real time, identified only by ZIP code. Those who take a moment to share their health status on a given day will help the experts track specific locations where COVID-19 is spreading or receding and at what rate.

Established team

The tool was developed by the HealthMap team at HMS and Boston Children's.

HealthMap was founded in 2006 by John Brownstein, professor of biomedical informatics in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS and chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s. The group uses informal online sources to monitor disease outbreaks and track emerging public health threats in real time.

The team built a similar tool nearly a decade ago, Flu Near You, which has helped people understand influenza activity in their community while aiding experts with early detection and local forecasting. COVID Near You uses the same crowdsourcing technology.

Augmenting public health tracking of COVID-19

Like Flu Near You, COVID Near You visually maps the data it gathers to help identify current and potential COVID-19 hotspots. Reporting is quick, simple and anonymous. Any U.S. resident over age 13 can participate.

Screen shot of a map of the U.S. with many dots indicating reported symptoms and reported tests
Image captured Mar. 27, 2020

“The public’s real-time reports of COVID-19-related symptoms can augment traditional public health tracking and help everyone understand where COVID-19 symptoms are occurring in their community,” said Kara Sewalk, an epidemiologist with HealthMap who helped create the new tool. “The more people join, the stronger the signals in the data we gather.”

COVID Near You is supported by donations from MongoDB, Datadog and Cloudflare and donated time from product managers, engineers and designers across the technology sector.

Adapted from a post on Discoveries, the Boston Children's clinical and research innovation blog