Coronaprofile: To Zoom or not to Zoom?

04 Aug 2020 | News

As some governments start re-tightening social controls, UCL researcher Patty Kostkova is using apps and social media to study how people react to lockdown

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Researcher: Patty Kostkova, professor in digital health, University College London (UCL), UK; director of UCL IRDR Centre for Digital Public Health in Emergencies (dPHE)

Research area: Digital health – digital epidemic surveillance and outbreak detection and serious games and mobile interventions

Key funders: UKRI, EU


@pattykostkoava, @UCL_dPHE, @MyLockdownJour1

During the COVID-19 lockdowns – now threatening a reappearance in some places - people have had to rapidly adapt their lifestyles to maintain a sense of normality. Researcher Patty Kostkova at University College London is gathering data to track that. Preliminary findings show most people have been exercising more, but that older people are doing better overall than younger people under lockdown, she says in an interview with Science|Business. The big question: Can apps or other tools be used to make future virus-fighting constraints more tolerable?  

Q. Tell us about your COVID-19 lockdown projects.

The UCL Centre for Digital Public Health in Emergencies (dPHE) is leading several projects exploring how people have changed the way they spend or have spent their time during the COVID-19 lockdown and in the current period of social distancing.

Q. What have you discovered so far?

It was amazing to see how citizens were finding innovative ways to keep active, stay entertained and connect with friends and family.

coronaprofile1A survey we conducted of close to 5,000 participants – we called it “Zoom or Not to Zoom” – found that more than half of the mostly UK sample population now exercises more than once per day and are finding more time for relaxation and personal interests. You can see that at a glance from the word cloud diagram created

from the survey results: running, walking, and daily walk are phrases most commonly used, and physical activity is very much on the minds of many people these days.

Initial findings show that 52 per cent of the sample population exercise more than once a day. These people are finding more time for personal interests, relaxation and meditation. In general, yoga, meditation and reading have seen the biggest increase in relaxation activities; and walking, cycling and running are on the rise, with people doing more of previous sporting activities rather than finding new ones.

Generally, older people were coping much better with isolation. Among those 65 or older, 55 per cent said they have been dedicating time to walking, nine per cent to cycling and 7 per cent to gardening. Only 10 per cent said they are distressed “quite a lot.”

Younger people, however, say they are becoming more irritable, upset and distressed. For 18-24-year olds, 36 per cent reported being irritable “quite a lot” and 8 per cent “all the time”. About 30 per cent said they were distressed “quite a lot” and 31 per cent said they were upset “quite a lot”.

Mental health and COVID-19

Around the world, researchers have been studying the impact of the virus on mental health – and it is generally disturbing.

A UK study, published 21 July in The Lancet, asked a group of 55,000 people participating in a long-term study how they are feeling. The percentage of clinically significant levels of mental distress rose from 19 per cent in 2018-20 to 27 per cent in April 2020, one month into Britain’s lockdown.  The impact was greatest on those under 35, women and people living with young children. 

  Q.  How are you getting this kind of data?

Based on that survey experience, we developed an online app called “My Lockdown Journal” on Android. It will be launched in a few weeks’ time on iPhone. Try it yourself!

By analysing in-app collected data, we will develop and evaluate ways to improve citizens’ wellbeing through online education, such as interactive digital storytelling (with our Dutch partner Transmissible); reminders and app alerts; and personal behaviour interventions to improve wellbeing. For instance, with the app people can set personal goals to do an activity reported very enjoyable through the app. We can provide games on the app, to reward users with badges and prizes for completing goals. And with the app, people can keep a journal of their activities and be able to look back on what they achieved and how they fell - which will be increasingly important during the upcoming periods of local lockdowns.

We have also been analysing Twitter discourse to understand changing public attitudes towards government policies (e.g. lockdown rules, exit strategies, mental health challenges) in multiple languages. In collaboration with the World Health Organisation and Universitat Pompeu Fabra Barcelona, the team are analysing the social media discourse in the UK, Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary, China, Spain and Brazil.  

Q.  What about ethical challenges regarding data?

We dramatically need to improve data sharing and governance. Many ethical challenges and lack of citizens’ trust were highlighted by the recent developments of COVID-19 contact tracing apps. We need to ensure giving citizens more control over their data shared through privacy-preserving apps, or on social media or online searches , while promoting better regulation of the IT industry through global data governance. Here’s a paper I published on the subject in 2016 ‘ Who Owns the Data: Open Data for Healthcare’ which identifies three ethical challenges: responsibility in sharing data across early warning tools; the legal frameworks for public health data sharing to unlock the potential of population-level datasets for research with no impact on citizens privacy; and stricter regulation of the IT industry with regards to manipulating user data.  


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