Signing up involves providing some basic health information and takes about three to four minutes, Chan said. After that, users are asked to spend about a minute per day registering updates, whether or not they have symptoms.
The app team hopes to eventually enlist a few hundred thousand participants. “The more data we collect, the more useful it will be,” explained Chan, though he acknowledged some challenges. One is ensuring that older Americans — who may feel less comfortable with the technology — participate. And then there’s the recognition that some Americans may have concerns over privacy.
To the later point, Chan noted that his team has “very clear guidelines around privacy that are outlined in the consent process in the app. We have our consent procedures reviewed by our hospitals institutional review board, and we abide by the strictest guidelines in terms of privacy of health information.”
But privacy concerns could very well be a deal breaker for many Americans, cautioned Chunhuei Chi, director of the Center for Global Health at Oregon State University.
The difficulty, he said, is trying to strike “a delicate balance between societal needs to control the epidemic versus protecting individual privacy and freedom.”
Other app efforts, such as one launched by Google, gathers location data to track the social impact of COVID-19, Chi pointed out. But in those cases, data collection has not focused on detailed information directly from individuals.
So it could be that “a substantial proportion of the American population may be uncomfortable with sharing such intimate health and behavior information via an app,” Chi noted.
That concern was not shared by Maura Iversen, a behavioral scientist and clinical epidemiologist and dean of Sacred Heart University’s College of Health Professions in Fairfield, Conn.
“I do think Americans will feel comfortable and be willing to share this information as we are pulling together to try to tackle this pandemic,” she said. And “as economics and health are so closely intertwined,” Iversen believes that widespread participation could ease the process of reopening the country.
“The sooner that we can get a grasp on who has the disease, how it spreads, and among which groups symptoms were mild then resolved, the easier it will be to make resource decisions and determine where and when to open businesses,” Iversen said.