Help stop the spread with a new app from Imperial College Business School
The fight against coronavirus is a communal one, but it relies on us making decisions as individuals. The second wave of infections in some countries during the latter half of 2020 suggests many struggled to make that connection. Our new app could help stop that happening again.
YRisk-COVID is a new tool designed to help individuals navigate the pandemic. Developed through a collaboration between Imperial College Business School and the university’s School of Public Health, the app gives users a personalised risk score, based on individual circumstances, of being infected by SaRs-CoV-2 (COVID-19).
This score is based on four components: workplace, commuting, household and social. YRisk-COVID enables users to enter highly specific data: everything from room size to mask types to the fullness of train carriages, and much more.
We know certain groups are at higher risk: does this influence risk taking?
This gives them an objective measure of the risks they and those with whom they cohabit face, and the contexts in which they face them. Demographic and localised epidemiological data give the app further specificity. It does not aim to supplant official messaging or measures, but simply to help users understand how these relate directly to them.
By helping users to understand their personal risk factors, YRisk-COVID empowers them to make better decisions. This may help us avoid further lockdowns as vaccines are produced and delivered at scale – particularly as experts warn seasonal gatherings could lead to a surge in infections.
Using the app, users will be able to feed in speculative information related to any planned gatherings: whether social distancing is possible, length of time, and how many people will be present, etc. We hope the scores generated will make them think carefully about whether they and their loved ones can afford to take the risk.
How we built YRisk-COVID
YRisk-COVID has been in the making since the early days of the first UK lockdown. We knew finding solutions to the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic would extend beyond the expertise of any single faculty and a multidisciplinary approach would be necessary.
This approach allowed us to build the sophisticated model at the heart of the app. We understand the virus spreads from droplet and aerosol emissions, as well as the resulting surface contamination. Using disaster and infection-modelling techniques, we predicted how the virus might spread in various contexts.
To calibrate the app and measure its efficiency, we validated the data against real-life scenarios. These included a bus in eastern China carrying an infected person from Hubei, a choir in Washington State, and a South Korean call centre – all places the virus spread. In all three cases, we found the figures generated by the algorithm closely matched real life.
This information could be used to inform the direction of travel of future policy and messaging
Within the Business School, the YRisk-COVID project was led by the Centre for Climate Finance & Investment and the Gandhi Centre for Inclusive Innovation. This reflects the environmental and social questions thrown into sharp relief by COVID-19.
We were fortunate enough to work alongside Professor the Lord Ara Darzi, Co-Director of Imperial’s Institute of Global Health Innovation and a prominent actor in the UK coronavirus effort, as well as other talented academics, who have championed its capability and provided the impetus to expand the scope of the project
Behavioural insights can be used by policymakers
Research in behavioural sciences suggest people, in general, are directed by a specific goal; YRisk-COVID builds on government guidelines by giving users a specific goal to achieve. And while helping individuals to be economically active in a risk-weighted way may be the core purpose of the app, its potential applications go beyond this.
The anonymised data collected by the app will provide insights into our collective behaviour. We can begin to understand under what conditions users would be willing to take risks – and which risks they would be more willing to take. This information could be used to inform the direction of travel of future policy and messaging.
We can break this data down by demographic: by gender, age, ethnicity, profession or other socioeconomic groupings and whether they have pre-existing health conditions. We know certain groups are at higher risk: does this influence risk taking? It might also be used as a bespoke solution to help employers or industries minimise risk to their employees.
users will be able to feed in speculative information related to any planned gatherings
Understanding collective behaviour may prove invaluable if we face another pandemic. Sadly, climate change means COVID-19 may not be the last, and deeply embedded social inequalities mean the negative consequences will continue to be unevenly distributed.
An app alone cannot remedy these ills. But we sincerely hope that, in empowering individuals, it can help to bridge the information gap, and that the findings will allow us to better understand the links between individuals and society through which we can attempt to better control such events.