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HealthPartners, UMN researchers launch app to Fight COVID-19 at the neighborhood level
By crowdsourcing user’s anonymous data, SafeDistance app could offer hyper-local view of neighborhood health and help people avoid novel coronavirus
BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — HealthPartners Institute and researchers at the University of Minnesota have
teamed up with developers to create a mobile app that provides users with data about the health of
their neighborhood, helping them avoid potential COVID-19 hotspots.
“People want clear information about their health and their neighborhoods. Those of us in health care
and public health are limited in our ability to test, isolate and trace the contacts of possible COVID-19
cases,” said Bjorn Westgard, MD, an emergency physician and population health researcher at the
HealthPartners Institute. “This tool could help with both of those issues.”
Called SafeDistance, the app crowdsources data down to the level of people’s census block groups.
These census block groups usually contain around 1,500 people and most accurately reflect
“We chose this neighborhood approach because it respects users’ privacy, but still provides detailed
data that can be genuinely useful to the public and to health professionals,” said Brian Krohn, PhD,
developer at Modern Logic and technical lead on the project. “We’re trying to create very actionable
information on an individual level and a population health level.”
Most current COVID-19 tracking maps only break-down COVID-19 data to the county level, which is not
detailed enough to help public health officials contain outbreaks or target resources. Additionally, most
tracking maps currently available only report cases confirmed by testing, representing a fraction of the
infections spreading across the country. But, SafeDistance displays data showing potential and
confirmed cases, creating a more holistic picture of regional health.
Unlike similar apps, no account is required to use SafeDistance, data will not be used for-profit, and
users will not be asked for identifiable information.
How to “SafeDistance”
Users first download SafeDistance and enter anonymous demographic and health data. They can then
share things like whether they have had potential infectious contacts, are displaying COVID-19
symptoms, or have been clinically diagnosed, tested, or confirmed with COVID-19.
The app provides practical tips about users’ own health risks, how best to maintain social distancing,
what to do for symptoms that might arise, and when to seek further care. As more users adopt the tool,
they will also receive notifications when they move through high-risk areas and whether they should
self-isolate and monitor for the development of COVID-19 symptoms.
The crowdsourced health and geographic data from all users are displayed in a color-coded heat map by
neighborhood to indicate areas where COVID-19 is likely circulating and if those hotspots are based on
adequate amounts of data. App users can then know the likely degree of COVID-19 in their community
and increase their social distancing or self-isolation in response.
For Public Health Experts, A Chance At Prediction
For health care and public health experts, it could be a window into the lifecycle of the outbreak. In the
absence of widespread testing, using anonymous data and real-time broad geographic tracking, public
health experts and care systems could coordinate their operations and tailor resources and preventive
health to specific communities.
“We are all seeing maps of confirmed cases and deaths, but we know that the data underrepresent the
true impact of COVID-19 due to limited testing,” said Nico Pronk, PhD, HealthPartners Institute
president and HealthPartners chief science officer. “We hope this app will provide a better picture of
illness and risk in our community at a level that the average user can make informed decisions.”
The project uses multiple public data sources but is added to by user data – the more people who use
the app, the more accurate it will be. The app will launch first across Minnesota. Clinicians at
HealthPartners are encouraging patients and the public to use the app. If the tool is widely used in the
Twin Cities, where COVID-19 is most prevalent, it could help telegraph the spread to new areas of
Greater Minnesota or show persistent hotspots of infection.
While this tool and research are relatively new, researchers are hopeful this type of user-generated data
could be helpful in fighting outbreaks in the future, too.
To download SafeDistance, visit www.SafeDistance.org.
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About HealthPartners Institute
HealthPartners Institute is part of HealthPartners, the largest consumer-governed, non-profit health care
organization in the nation with a mission to improve health and well-being in partnership with members, patients
and the community. HealthPartners Institute supports this mission through research, education and practice. The
Institute annually conducts 400+ research studies and trains 700+ medical residents and fellows and 1,200+
medical and advanced practice students. Its integration with HealthPartners’ hospitals, clinics and health plan
strengthens the Institute’s ability to discover and develop evidence-based solutions and translate them into
practice. Based in Minneapolis, the Institute’s work impacts care, health and well-being across the region and
nation as well as internationally. Visit healthpartnersinstitute.org for more information.