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Smartphone app aimed at predicting virus outbreaks seeks volunteers

Researchers hope to turn smartphones into personal screeners.

SEATTLE — As the U.S. deals with the COVID-19 pandemic, volunteers are being sought nationwide to test a smartphone app with the hopes of turning it into a personal screener that could predict viral outbreaks. 

UW Medicine in Seattle is recruiting 25,000 people across the country to download and use the Health and Injury Prediction and Prevention Using Complex Reasoning and Analytic Techniques Integrated on a Cellphone (HIPPOCRATIC) App.

A three-year study into the app was initially started to track the outbreak of the flu.

"Because of the problems we're facing now with COVID-19, this is a really huge opportunity for us to get a sense as to whether phones can detect these outbreaks, basically become a personal screener for an illness," said Patricia Areán, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine, who started the study.

“Even though we’re in the middle of a pandemic, it’s actually a really useful time for us to collect information to build out the predictive signal, or the predictive algorithm from the phone so that we can start to test it again in the fall and in the winter months,” she added in a statement.

The app will collect information from four groups of participants over two years. UW Medicine says people will be recruited for 12 weeks at a time and asked to record their symptoms daily. The study says questions may include:

  • How difficult was it to fall and stay asleep last night?
  • What best describes your activity level yesterday?
  • Do you have a sore throat?

"You will fill out brief surveys and regularly check in about any illnesses or injuries you may have experienced while the app collects information about your phone usage, your movement, and voice tones," the study website states.

Participants may also be asked to provide photos and videos of their eyes, which helps researchers collect information on head injuries, and passive information such as location data from their phone. Users have the option to say no when asked for these and still remain in the study.

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UW Medicine says the app could diagnose illnesses sooner, thereby preventing people from returning to work or school before they should. In essence, it could act as a personal screener without the need to go see a doctor.

People age 19 and older can participate. There is also a reward of up to $90 via Amazon gift codes. The study says all personal data will be encrypted, anonymous and will never be sold or shared, but does warn that there is some risk someone outside of the research could find out who participated.

Those who are interested can enroll here.

UW Medicine says the app was developed by Charles River Analytics in Massachusetts, Assured Information Security in New York, Kryptowire in Virginia and Tozny in Oregon.

The app is funded by the Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. UW Medicine says the agency makes investments in technologies that support national security. 

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