How citizen science is bolstering pandemic response

Timely crowdsourcing efforts are supplementing the COVID-19 fight.

Vanita Srivastava

doi:10.1038/nindia.2020.162 Published online 14 October 2020

At Quantified Flu, Bastian G Tzovaras looks at personalised ways for people to sense early symptoms of infection.
In March this year, when the novel coronavirus was spreading across the world, Bastian Greshake Tzovaras was looking at easy personalised ways in which people could sense early symptoms of an infection.

Greshake Tzovaras , a research fellow at the Center for Research and Interdisciplinarity at Université de Paris, was working with the global online platform Quantified Flu, which uses self-tracking data from smart wearables, among other sources, to make infection predictions.

Within a few weeks, he saw enthusiastic community members help build a website, integrating different types of wearables as data sources, and even making a smartphone app to export data from Apple watches.

Swiss software engineer Ariadni Karolina Alexiou developed functionality on the platform that could help users add heart rate data from devices such as Google Fit and Garmin Fitbit to their online account, and plot them against symptoms. “Volunteers helped me test code to integrate the devices with the platform by granting temporary access to their data,” Alexiou says.

Spurred by the success of what they could achieve in tracking the pandemic, Greshake Tzovaras was soon working on another citizen-driven data collection initiative, the Covid Open Survey.“The pandemic has shown that citizen science approaches – combined with open science ideals – can make an impact in addressing urgent questions,” he says.

Real-time pandemic tracking

Jijo P Ulahannan tracks pandemic data from Kerala in India.
With tools tracking the trajectory of the pandemic to those predicting public health outcomes and recommending solutions, crowd sourcing efforts have significantly informed the response to COVID-19 worldwide.

A group of scientists, academicians and health professionals in Kerala, the state that reported India’s first case of COVID-19 on 30 January, started conceptualising Covid19Kerala.info in March. The online platform maps the daily trajectory of COVID-19 and tracks its progression in different parts of the state. Its makers wanted to overcome the limitations of unstructured data released by the government and generate open and reusable datasets for analysis and visualisation. “We leveraged the COVID-19 outbreak data from Kerala government bulletins and media outlets to generate reusable datasets,” says Jijo Pulickiyi Ulahannan, an assistant professor of physics at Government College Kasaragod and a leading member of the initiative.

Over 60 volunteers work on the bilingual citizen-centric dashboard to provide real-time analyses and updates accessible even by non-specialists. Besides the website, they periodically submit the datasets collated from various public sources to Zenodo.org for use by researchers, academics and policymakers.

“The collective effort has shown that it is possible to assemble a citizen science group during pandemic times,” Ulahannan says.

Plugging the information gap

Countries have been struggling to accurately detect data trends, predict public health outcomes and recommend quick public health interventions.The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare this gap in capacity, says health scientist Jina Joan Dcruz, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia.

Models such as Covid19Kerala.info are good examples of scalable and impactful open source COVID-19 tracking, she says.

Crowdsourced initiatives are crucial in checking the accuracy of government records, says Gautam Menon, a professor of physics and biology at Ashoka University in Sonepat, Haryana. Undercounting of COVID-19 deaths, for instance, can be corrected using data sourced through the public, he says. 

Citizen-driven efforts are also a reflection of the scientific temper that India always vows to promote. “Engagement in data collation and its use for pandemic control supports the government's efforts,” says clinician scientist Gagandeep Kang from the Christian Medical College in Vellore.

Jessica H Mirman is chronicling the pandemic through a people's living digital diary.
Anne Bowser, Deputy Director with the Science and Technology Innovation Program (STIP) and the Director of Innovation at Washington-based Wilson Center agrees that citizen science and crowdsourcing offer huge potential to complement official responses to the novel coronavirus pandemic.  “Both approaches not only help bring in more data, but also increase the utility and impact of information by engaging and activating the public,” she wrote in a co-authored blog.

Crowdsourcing also offers scope for the interdisciplinary engagement of sciences with humanities, arts and social sciences. Corona Report, a living digital diary which enables people to chronicle the impact of the virus on their lives, is a case in point. Led by Jessica Hafetz Mirman, a lecturer in applied psychology and public health at the University of Edinburgh, this online tool allows people to answer close-ended questions and complete an open text “diary” that can be updated as often as they want.

“The data will be used as inputs to raise awareness of citizens’ specific needs, identify available resources and connect citizens with the resources and assets they need,” Mirman says.

Nature India’s latest coverage on the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic here. More updates on the global crisis here.