Harvard Junior Fellow William Allen is using his skill of handling large data sets to tackle the coronavirus pandemic as a collaborator on the How We Feel (HWF) Project.
Each day, thousands of people report their age, their health symptoms (or absence thereof), and their zipcode through the How We Feel app. Using this anonymous data, collaborators at Harvard, the Broad, and other universities are looking for trends that might reveal where COVID-19 outbreaks are likely to flare up. Additionally, HWF has partnered with the nonprofit Feeding America to provide one meal to a person in need each time someone downloads the app and completes a check-in.
The HWF Project was founded in March 2020 by Feng Zhang of The Broad Institute and MIT and his high-school classmate Ben Silberman of Pinterest as a way for scientists to gather anonymous data on COVID-19 symptoms.
Allen, who works with MCB’s Dulac Lab, as well as Xiaowei Zhuang’s lab in the Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department and Zhang’s lab at the Broad, is a neuroscientist by training but wanted to contribute. Just a few days before the Harvard labs shut down, he became part of HWF’s data analysis team, tasked with making sense of users’ responses.
“We’re gathering a lot of information now that everybody can answer,” says Allen. “That’s useful for epidemiologists, like information about how often people are going outside and how many people they’re in contact with, or whether they’re wearing face protection. That’s relevant for understanding behavior of people and following the rules of social distancing, and hopefully we’ll understand when, where, and why the disease is spreading.”
For Allen, whose graduate work focused on collecting multi-layered data from brain cells and tissues, working with self-reported epidemiological data is a bit of a change. “It’s self-reported data, so there are complications with how noisy the responses are,” he says.
HWF data is already contributing to policy decisions through a partnership with the governor of Connecticut. The governor is encouraging her state’s residents to contribute data to the app, and, in return, the HWF project is sharing some data that could inform decisions about when and where to re-open.
The data will also help inform the public. Earlier this week, Allen posted the first HWF blog post, covering a question about whether HWF respondents feel safe returning to work. (The majority do not.)
Allen adds that since the testing shortage is likely to continue, survey apps like HWF may be important for tracking the pandemic. Anyone who wants to contribute data can download the app from iTunes or from Google Play. Those who would like to apply to be volunteers on the project can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.