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Scientists work with Facebook to forecast Covid-19 second wave

Researchers and health body try to predict possible comeback of coronavirus using movement tracking

Researchers at the Université Paris Sciences et Lettres (PSL) plan to use Facebook movement-tracking data in a wide-ranging demographic study of possible Covid-19 outbreak hotspots.

The “big data” initiative Face au Virus (Facing the Virus) is aimed at predicting and stopping a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic in France. As part of ongoing work under Face au Virus, researchers from PSL, the National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation (Inria) and national health research institute Inserm will study movement data provided by the social networking giant.

The initiative’s announcement follows a statement made by Facebook in April this year, when its managers promised that movement datasets would be made available to researchers.

The first study by Face au Virus, published on 25 May, found the French population’s movements were reduced by nearly 80 per cent during the country’s lockdown, which started in March and is only now easing up.

To address concerns around privacy, Inria researcher Laurent Massoulié told Europe 1 radio that the Facebook data would not show researchers where individuals had been. Instead, the research would primarily monitor “aggregated population flows”.

Face au Virus organisers said the data used “does not in any way aim to identify individual behaviour”.

Nonetheless, privacy has become a crucial social question in the pandemic as governments seek to track and trace those who may have come into contact with infected people. For instance, concerns have grown at the implications of StopCovid, a mobile app launched by the French government for this purpose on 2 June.

Campaigns led by computer scientists are arguing that the plan to trace people via an app is risky and may impede their rights to privacy.