Could A Crowd-Sourced Social Media Survey Inform The End of the Lockdown?

Could a survey that doesn't take into account racial and socioeconomic inequalities be robust enough to inform the end of the lockdown?

By: Ambika Samarthya-Howard

Several European countries have began to ease travel restrictions amidst policies. While the UK has a slightly different idea of appropriate risk—particularly when it comes to certain members of the government—everyone is eager to do everything possible to stop the spread of the pandemic, and go back to normal.

But how can we know if social distancing policies and self-isolation actually work?

Some countries have controlled the pandemic through increased surveillance. China monitored its citizens via WeChat, while other countries have started using digital tools to trace the spread of the pandemic.

A few weeks into the pandemic, Afghanistan war veteran James Fennell wanted to see if something similar could work in the United Kingdom.

“Is it possible to build a mass COVID 19 surveillance and advice app in 48 hours?” he asked his Facebook followers, wondering if data was the answer to nipping the pandemic in the bud.

A few minutes later, two fellow veterans messaged him—they had been wondering the same thing. Together, they launched a voluntary survey, Corona Help UK across social media platforms, with a simple, but ambitious, goal: collect real- time data from people around the UK to gauge whether or not the government’s social distancing and self-isolation measures are actually effective. 

“What we are creating is a super decision-making tool to help the Government make the right decisions at the right times to save us and our families,” said James Fennell, explaining that the survey is specifically designed to facilitate government transparency, while keeping users’ data safe.

The survey asks questions such as, “Did you work from home today?” and “Did you meet up with people from other households today?” and guarantees anonymity and digital security, but asks for a postcode to facilitate regional mapping of social distancing practices. This is then cross-referenced with the government’s data about infection rates. While the small team originally devised the survey to combat the spread of the pandemic, now they are leveraging it to inform the gradual lifting of the lockdown, and how it can inform behavior as people return to normal. 

 “There’s a compromise between making it easy to use, not asking people too much personal stuff, and also asking people to not spend too much time to complete it,” Fennel continued, explaining that he and the other co-founders deliberately chose not to focus on race, ethnicity or income in the survey’s design.

They were concerned about the survey being used to make racialised assumptions about who does, and does not observe social isolation and distancing requirements—a valid fear, particularly evident in the stories of how lockdown policing has lead to more cases racial profiling, or assumptions about religious gatherings, such as the Eid holiday, potentially leading to a spike in infections.

However, guidelines like social distancing and self-isolation work are directly impacted with how COVID-19 has unjustly affected communities of colour.

In reviewing the survey results, Equality Labs, a South Asian community technology organizaion, observed that areas such as Brent, which had the highest rates of infections and deaths are primarily Black, Asian and minority ethnic, or, BAME.

“Not just in London, but in New York, and across the world, we’re seeing systematic racism and white supremacy in the ways people of color are disproportionately affected by COVID-19,” said a spokesperson from Equality Labs, a South Asian-lead technology organisation that has analysed the survey results.

“For many of their communities, social distancing is problematized by economic and cultural concerns, including domestic violence, poverty, which forces people to live in overcrowded housing, increasing the chances of the virus, and lack of access to accurate information,” they continued.

Since the Corona Help UK survey does share postcodes, some of this information can be drawn from there—even though the creators were careful not to ask about race and income. For example, South East London is the only areas currently in red (over 10% of survey respondents are symptomatic)—and is not coincidentally home to some of the most racially diverse, and economically deprived boroughs in the country. There are numerous reports of foodbanks in overdrive due to increased need, and landlords in the area being unsympathetic towards working class tenants, unable to make their rent due to cut hours.

As it stands, there is no way to note whether people are flouting the lockdown due to these concerns, or simply not wanting to adhere to the government’s advice.

“People are still a little bit suspicious, it’s still not natural to let a stranger in their sphere,” said Bach, explaining that the raw and analysed data goes to a new organisation called Project OASIS, a partnership between the NHS and JmedHub to ensure that it is interpreted correctly. From there it goes to the Cabinet Office, the heart of government and decision-making, where it is intended to inform the next phases of the lockdown.

“ It’s quite a political action to have this data,” Bach continues. “It has an element of power with it.” 

The goal is to make the survey accessible and representative so that it can gather as much data as possible and analyze it in a way that can accurately inform the government, working to better hold it accountable. If used correctly, the data in the survey could be used to integrate the racial and economic disparities into the government’s response, though first the survey needs to fix a few blindspots. First, it is only offered in English, making it more difficult for immigrant populations to participate. Second, it is only available on a limited number of social media platforms, and hasn’t yet reached Instagram, Snapchat or TikTok which would likely enhance youth participation, and get a more accurate sample.

As it is designed, the survey is meant to show whether or not the British population is adhering to government policies, and how this correlates with infections. But in order for the data to be truly meaningful, it would take into account some of the racial and socioeconomic inequalities shaping the data, and work on integrating these into a strategy that addresses the racial and class discrepancies that existed in society long before the pandemic ever came to pass.