If, like 37 million French people, you are registered on Facebook, you may see a strange message by connecting to the social network in the coming days: a banner at the top of your "wall", which offers you to participate in a survey to "help researchers anticipate where the Covid-19 will spread". This tool, already in place in the United States since the beginning of April, has been deployed in France since Wednesday. It is part of the technological arsenal deployed by Facebook which tries to put its community, and its data, at the service of the fight against the coronavirus.
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Anonymous survey for researchers
If you click on this banner, which is gradually displayed on the wall of users over 18 years of age, you will be directed to a survey on the coronavirus. Fever, cough, loss of taste and smell: in just a few clicks, you can tell if you have one or more of these Covid-19 symptoms. Important clarification: this is not a survey done by or for Facebook. The social network has teamed up with the American University of Maryland: it will process the responses, anonymously, only for scientific purposes.
Facebook says it will not collect any data. "This survey is conducted according to a protocol guaranteeing the protection of user data since Facebook does not share any identifying data with the University of Maryland, which does not share with Facebook the individual responses of users to this survey," said the social network in a statement. The message is hammered at will by Facebook as its position in the debate on data and tracking is controversial, like that of other giants such as Apple and Google.
Map the progress of the coronavirus
In the United States, this survey has already been tested since the beginning of April, in partnership with another university, that of Carnegie Mellon, in Pennsylvania. Using this tool, American researchers were able to develop a map that indicates which counties have the most people affected by coronavirus symptoms. The deployment of this tool in France will give rise to the creation of a similar map. However, the survey only provides declarative responses, which limits the scientific scope since it is possible to declare symptoms without being infected with Covid-19. Even being in good faith, it can sometimes be a simple flu.
But the interest of associating with Facebook is very real for researchers: the social network gives them access to a huge database. In just one week, a million American Facebook users had responded to the survey, a much more important foundation than that of conventional university studies. These data thus allow researchers to follow the evolution of the coronavirus. Because, beyond the United States and France, the Facebook survey is now deployed worldwide, where it has 2.5 billion users.
A partnership with leading French schools
This survey is one of the tools that the social network makes available to researchers around the world as part of its "Data for Good" program, which aims to facilitate the fight against the coronavirus by using digital data. Facebook provides, in an anonymized and aggregated manner, the geolocation data of its users (only those who allow the application to track their position) in order to trace the movements of populations. "The data can help governments determine where to allocate resources such as respirators or protective equipment and ultimately define which areas are the safest to deconfigure," said founder Mark Zuckerberg in a column. published by the Washington Post .
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In France, Facebook announced a partnership with the Paris Sciences et Lettres university center. "PSL" brings together, among others, the École des Mines, the École normale supérieure, the Institut Curie and the Université Paris-Dauphine, and works in partnership with the CNRS and Inserm. Researchers from these different establishments can access the data provided by Facebook to feed and test their scientific models, notably those linked to the spread of the coronavirus and deconfinement scenarios.