Welcome back to The Fixer, our weekly briefing of solutions reported elsewhere. This week, we’re focusing on efforts aimed at stemming the fallout from the coronavirus.
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With 2.5 billion users, Facebook has access to a lot of personal data, including location data on anyone who has opted to share their whereabouts via the app. Normally the social media giant keeps this information to itself, but recently it has begun sharing some of it with researchers analyzing coronavirus outbreaks.
Scientists at Harvard University in the U.S., National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, University of Pavia in Italy and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine are all now using Facebook’s data — in anonymized form — to look for patterns in how the virus spreads, in an attempt to predict where the next spikes in cases might occur.
Since the data tracks individuals rather than groups, it’s more granular than a lot of government data. “We aggregate up all of the signals into a picture of flows of people, and then the likelihood that groups of people from a neighborhood or a town are going to come into contact with groups of people from a nearby neighborhood or town,” said Laura McGorman, policy lead for Facebook’s (somewhat Orwellian named) Data for Good team. Fortuitously, the system was set up a year ago as part of Facebook’s Disease Prevention Maps program, which provides disease modeling information to global organizations like UNICEF.
Over half a billion kids are out of school right now, but many places are figuring out ways to safely bring at least some of them back. (Not all those efforts have been something we’d endorse — some ultra-Orthodox Israeli schools have created more space for social distancing by sending the girls home so the boys can spread out.)
In countries like Austria and the Netherlands, most students have been sent home, but schools remain open for children whose parents work in jobs essential to fighting the coronavirus. Many U.S. school districts have also ordered their schools to provide free child care to families with health care professionals.
In Asian cities that have been more successful in containing the virus, class is in session, but schools are adapting to education during a pandemic. Singapore is staggering recess times so fewer kids are on the playground at once. Japan is adding extra ventilation to classrooms.
As public libraries close across the country, many are looking for ways to keep books in the hands of those who can’t quite bring themselves to embrace the digital lifestyle. Some are repurposing their book delivery options — popular with nursing homes — as curbside pickup. The Orange County Public Library system that serves the area around Orlando, Florida has offered this service for years. According to Next City, on a regular weekday they typically get 1,100 to 1,300 requests — on March 17, requests roughly tripled to 3,300.
Even as many close, the public libraries still operating appear to be experiencing a boom. The system in Altoona, Wisconsin (population 9,000) can barely keep up. “In the last two days we were open, we checked out 3,200 items,” the library’s director told Next City. “That’s basically half a month’s worth of items in two days.”