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Even if you’re stuck at home you may be able to help researchers. Getty Images
  • Researchers at Rice University are seeking volunteers for crowdsourced studies to help them better understand the impact of the pandemic.
  • You don’t even have to leave the couch to get involved in the research.
  • Playing the role of citizen scientist through crowdsourced studies can be an empowering experience during a time when many people feel vulnerable.

Have you been spending more time online than usual lately? You’re not alone.

Internet usage has spiked since the first U.S. COVID-19 death in early February. As social distancing measures confine us to our homes, we’re spending more time scrolling through Facebook, binge-watching Netflix, and reading the news than ever before.

There’s nothing wrong with using the internet to stay connected with loved ones and escape through some much needed entertainment. But rather than just doing your regular online activities, why not devote some time to help scientists study COVID-19?

Researchers at Rice University are seeking volunteers for crowdsourced studies to help them better understand the impact of the pandemic — and you don’t even have to leave the couch to get involved.

Earlier this month, Rice University launched a pair of studies aimed at getting a big-picture view of the impact of the pandemic on society.

CovidSense is taking a look at how social distancing and stay-at-home orders impact people over time, while the COVID-19 Registry aims to track the spread of the virus and get a sense of its economic and health effects.

One of the researchers, Marie Lynn Miranda, PhD, statistician, data scientist, and director of the Children’s Environmental Health Initiative at Rice University, estimated that more than 2,000 people had signed up for the registry within its first week.

She encourages everyone, especially those from rural communities and other understudied areas, to fill out the online surveys.

“There’s a lot of information available on how COVID-19 is affecting New York City, Seattle, and San Francisco, but we have very little understanding of what’s going on in rural areas,” she said.

“[This study] is meant to be helpful to big cities, midsize towns, and rural areas, so that we’re better positioned to deploy healthcare resources where they’re needed and give policymakers a clear sense of the impact as they plan the recovery.”

Crowdsourced studies aren’t perfect — they rely on members of the public to completely understand every question, navigate potential technical difficulties, and respond truthfully. They also have limited ways for researchers to verify the data.

But when responses hit a critical mass, similar studies (like the COVID-19 Symptom Tracker) have already shown to make a real-world impact. The United Kingdom’s version of the app-based survey, which has already drawn more than 2 million participants worldwide, helped detect that a loss of taste or smell could be predictive of a COVID-19 diagnosis.

“We’re not asking participants to know for sure whether they have COVID or not,” explained Dr. Andrew Chan, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and lead researcher for the COVID-19 Symptom Tracker.

“There’s a lot of variability in how people get sick, and looking at data on the total number of people who are carrying the virus with relatively minimal symptoms will be important to controlling the spread of the virus, reopening states, and reducing isolation measures.”

Studies like these aren’t just good for public health, though. They can also help participants feel less helpless during a time of uncertainty, said Jonathan S. Comer, PhD, professor of psychology and psychiatry at Florida International University’s Center for Children and Families, who has studied the psychosocial effects of disasters, like 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing, on children and families.

“They’re not first responders or police officers or healthcare professionals, but families know it’s a unique time of need for our country and they want to find ways they can serve,” said Comer, who is helping lead a study on the impact of the coronavirus on families.

“Sharing your own experience and helping researchers understand how families are adjusting is a proactive, positive way to make a contribution from the comfort of your own home,” he added.

The Rice University surveys and others mentioned in this article are just a few of many pandemic-related studies seeking participants right now. You can also participate in crowdsourced studies from the University of Utah, LunaDNA and Disease InfoSearch, and xCures, among other institutions and research groups.

With so many opportunities to participate in research, how do you choose which studies and surveys make the most sense for you?

Miranda recommends considering three key factors: Who’s running the study, whether you feel confident that those researchers will respect your data and keep it confidential, and whether the study has the potential to make a difference in ways you care about.

And while it might seem like a small act, playing the role of citizen scientist through crowdsourced studies can be an empowering experience during a time when many people feel vulnerable.

“These situations bring out a desire to be part of the solution, to help battle this virus that is impacting all of our lives so profoundly,” said Miranda.

“Enrolling in the COVID-19 Registry is one way to be part of the solution and advance the knowledge frontier to ensure we have better care, better deployment of resources, and better recovery programs once the virus passes. It’s meaningful to join these efforts.”

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