May 15, 2020

Hany Farid, Joshua Blumenstock Awarded Seed Funding for COVID-19 Mitigation Efforts

Professor Hany Farid and Assistant Professor Joshua Blumenstock have been awarded seed funding for their technology projects designed to mitigate the COVID-19 crisis by CITRIS and the Banatao Institute.

CITRIS and the Banatao Institute is a multicampus research institute of the University of California, headquartered at UC Berkeley, whose mission is to create information technology solutions for society’s most pressing challenges. All projects are centered in one of four CITRIS-affiliated UC campuses: UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Merced, and UC Santa Cruz. Selected projects were evaluated on cost, scalability, and impact, and were funded at an average of $50,000 each. Projects are designed to show research results within three to six months.

Identifying and Quantifying COVID-19 Misinformation

Professor Farid is working with the Executive Director of the Human Rights Center and lecturer at the UC Berkeley School of Law, Alexa Koenig, on identifying and quantifying COVID-19 misinformation. Since the outbreak of the virus, several initiatives have been formed to identify and debunk hoaxes and false narratives. This project, however, aims to conduct a large-scale quantification of the nature of and belief in the numerous conspiracies surrounding the pandemic. In doing so, Farid hopes to accomplish three main goals: to audit the efficiency of measures taken by social media platforms to fight misinformation, inform future research and increase efficiency in responding to misinformation with targeted, fact-based communication campaigns.

To audit measures taken by social media platforms, Farid’s team is using a monitoring infrastructure that collects daily content from YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. The content is filtered by a machine-learning algorithm that flags posts suspected of containing misinformation. Along with these measures, Farid plans to perform country-specific, large-scale online surveys to assess the penetration and belief in misinformation narratives.

Privacy Guarantees for the use of Personal Location Data in COVID Models

Assistant Professor Blumenstock’s project is aimed at establishing privacy guarantees for the use of personal location data in COVID-19 models. Currently, Blumenstock and his research team are working with multiple projects that have implemented the use of personal location data in hopes of improving disease forecasting and guiding effective response. This kind of data is usually generated by GPS-enabled smartphones and collected by companies like Google and Facebook, allowing them unparalleled visibility into the travel patterns of individual users.

As policy discourse continues about the risks of making such private data publicly accessible, Blumenstock has chosen to focus this project on developing privacy-preserving techniques for the use of personal location data in epidemiological methods. This means developing both the theory and the tools for private techniques that also allow for the use of personal location data to study disease spread without sacrificing individual privacy.

“This amazing response from the research community and our generous donor will greatly accelerate the innovation, ingenuity, and public service of the University of California,” said CITRIS Director Costas Spanos, also a UC Berkeley faculty member in electrical engineering and computer science. “We are immensely grateful and welcome additional partners to further expand our efforts to address the pandemic.”

Last updated:

June 12, 2020