Q&A with Covidseeker Principal Investigator Dr. Yulin Hswen

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Why is community transmission lower in certain neighborhoods? Is it safe to dine indoors and outdoors during the pandemic? What additional safety guidelines need to be enforced in order to ensure that businesses and educational institutions remain open?

As research uncovers potential targets for the development of treatments and vaccines, there still remain multiple unanswered questions surrounding COVID-19. Through mobile location data collected by Google, Covidseeker team strives to enhance our current understanding of COVID-19 transmissions and provide valuable insight to public officials as new health policies are implemented.

In this Q&A, talk to Dr. Yulin Hswen, PhD, the Principal Investigator of Covidseeker, as she shares the unique challenges associated with conducting human subjects research at an academic institution.

(This interview has been edited lightly for clarity and length.)

Synapse: What is Covidseeker, and how does it work?

Dr. Hswen: Covidseeker is a tool to best identify hotspots of transmission, including where and when people were most likely to have contracted COVID-19. Covidseeker leverages the GPS location data that’s collected already to be able to identify the potential locations where transmission is occurring. We are also hoping to use that information to understand certain transmission patterns or risk patterns of COVID-19, such as how people move and when and where they are going that place them more or less at risk.

Synapse: Part of participating in Covidseeker is sharing your Google location. Is Google involved in this project besides serving as a platform to share the location data?

Dr. Hswen: Google is not involved directly with this particular project. They already collect your data through Google Maps and provide the ability to obtain the data in other formats. We are leveraging the technology Google already has, but instead of using it for purposes of users mapping out particular locations of travel, we are using it as a hotspot identification tool.

Synapse: Covidseeker is different from Google or Apple contact tracing apps that send notifications “real-time” whenever a positively tested individual comes in close proximity. What makes Covidseeker different and special?

Dr. Hswen: This project is funded by NIH (National Institute of Health), NCI (National Cancer Institute). So, unlike the Google or Apple contact-tracing applications, which are focused on the individual and generating signals for people to understand if they’ve been in contact with someone who has been COVID-19 positive, our system is meant to identify the locations most at risk. This includes being able to evaluate whether or not certain protective measures are effective at preventing transmission or understanding patterns of transmission. Covidseeker is more based on understanding COVID-19 rather than signaling to people if they have been exposed or not. In other words, we are really looking at methods of prevention rather than containment.

Synapse: Protecting privacy seems to be a concern for many individuals in the era of big data. How is Covidseeker protecting data shared by the participants?

Dr. Hswen: Being with UCSF and the NIH, we have very strict privacy policies. For us, we go through institutional review board processes that evaluate the ethics of this project. We are aggregating the data, so it is anonymized. The data is less focused on the individual, but more on the areas of transmission and patterns of transmissions.

Synapse: Could you describe the members of the team as well as the role that each member takes?

Dr. Hswen: There’s George Rutherford and Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo who bring different sets of expertise. Dr. Rutherford has been on the front of connecting himself with the Department of Public Health and really understanding ‘on the ground’ efforts, practices, and policies. With Dr. Bibbins-Domingo, she is a leader in disparities research – so one of her primary goals is understanding how to protect the most vulnerable populations who are at risk and ensuring their places of living/commuting as well as places of employment are kept safe. For myself, [I have] a unique background in computational and digital epidemiology, bringing understanding of digital data onto the team. That type of combination of the team showcases all aspects of Covidseeker and what it’s trying to achieve.

Synapse: What drove you and your team to develop Covidseeker? How did you bring the idea to life?

Dr. Hswen: I still think today that we are very unaware of where and when people are transmitting COVID-19. There are suspicions and ideas, but it’s still an area largely unknown, [for example] certain patterns of mobility (how come some people who might travel a lot are not getting it while some people who are not travelling so much are getting it). Understanding those patterns are really important. And, we are looking for solutions to be able to understand those aspects and capture that data to be able to answer those questions.

Synapse: What challenges has the team faced with the development of Covidseeker?

Dr. Hswen: A challenge is the difficulty of getting off the ground. When you are part of a research institution, there are more protocols and policies we must abide by that the private sector does not. That’s not to say that it’s not important to have those protocols in place, but those are definitely a barrier, a good one to have. But it does decrease your speed.

Also, being compared to different [COVID-related] applications. Having people understand what differentiates us can be difficult because there are a lot of applications in this space, but emphasizing that our work is more research-focused can be challenging.

Finally, balancing usability and high-quality robust data is extremely difficult. If you want accurate and robust data, that takes a lot of time and effort for both ourselves to develop the tools to be able to extract the data and also for the participants themselves to be able to donate their time to do so. We understand that those are true barriers, but we are looking to obtain data that will be useful for scientists to help develop models to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Synapse: Could you share some tips/advice on how to successfully retrieve financial support for an idea?

Dr. Hswen: First, having a good idea and knowing what sets it apart from the rest. You have to be extremely knowledgeable and be sure that, like a business plan, you know your competitors. Making sure that you are not repeating what has already been done.

And, don’t be scared to put your ideas out to others to get feedback, and don’t be upset if people tell you it is not good. You don’t want to take advice from everybody, but you want to take advice from those who are experts in the field who have experience and insights to tell you what is right and what is wrong. Overall, you should have more people that say no to you – that makes your ideas better and you better.

Synapse: What’s the team’s short- and long-term vision and goals?

Dr. Hswen: Our short-term vision to try to recruit people who are coming in as COVD-19 positive and getting real time data on locations of when and where they’ve been. Long-term is to influence policy and practice using this type of data to inform how to open up our communities to be safe in the future.

Synapse: Any final comments?

Dr. Hswen: There are many ways to register into Covidseeker. If you text Seeker to 41411, you can download an application, and we can send you more information about it.