April 12, 2020

Researchers from Columbia University have launched CovidWatcher, an app and online portal that surveys users about their exposure to the new coronavirus, symptoms, access to medical care, and impact on daily life. The data will be used to track the spread of the coronavirus in New York City, giving citizens real-time information about hot spots and enabling health care officials to deploy resources where needed most.

SIPA’s Ester R. Fuchs, a professor of international and public affairs who directs the concentration in Urban and Social Policy, is a co-investigator for the project. Students in SIPA’s Urban and Social Policy concentration are working under Fuchs's guidance to provide support. Among other things, they're helping to disseminate the survey and make sure it reaches the largest number of New Yorkers. Read more about SIPA’s contribution to CovidWatcher »

The participating students are Andrea Greenstein MPA ’20, Sam Kraus MPA ’20, Alexandra Yellin MPA ’20, and Jessica Schneider, who is pursuing a dual degree in social work and public health.

SIPA News recently spoke with Greenstein, who provided a student perspective on this timely work.


Andrea Greenstein is one of several USP students working on the CovidWatcher project with Professor Ester Fuchs.
Andrea Greenstein is one of several USP students working on the CovidWatcher project with Professor Ester Fuchs.
How quickly did this project come together? How was it pivoting from the the planned curriculum to this more urgent project?


We started working with the Department of Biomedical Informatics about two weeks ago to help them think through logistics of disseminating the survey to the New York City community. I think we have played an important role in translating the project in a way that resonates with a broader audience. Professor Fuchs has been collecting feedback on the survey from community-based organizations across the city.

What was it like collaborating with bioinformatics and infectious diseases colleagues? What did you learn from them?

I have been impressed by how quickly they have deployed this project, from developing an app, to a survey, to launching the research with the University. I have learned a lot from this team about working remotely and quickly on a time-sensitive project. I hope one day I get to meet them all in person!

What are the next steps? How will you use the data? 

The website and app goes live this week. Our department [USP] is working on disseminating the survey to community partners—social services agencies, faith-based organizations, membership organizations, senior communities, small businesses, the list goes on. Ultimately, we hope the data will help policymakers and hospitals understand what resources are needed and where, and to improve coordination between government, medical institutions and community organizations.

What was it like collaborating virtually for such a complicated project with so many colleagues?

We have been using Slack to coordinate day to day updates, which works well. But for more complex questions and discussions where the answer is not straightforward, it can be challenging. I am still adapting to this new online Zoom world!

— Brett Essler