FPF Issues Award for Research Data Stewardship to Stanford Medicine & Empatica, Google & Its Academic Partners
WASHINGTON, DC (June 29, 2021) – The second-annual FPF Award for Research Data Stewardship honors two teams of researchers and corporate partners for their commitment to privacy and ethical uses of data in their efforts to research aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. One team is a collaboration between Stanford Medicine researchers led by Tejaswini Mishra, PhD, Professor Michael Snyder, PhD, and medical wearable and digital biomarker company Empatica. The other team is a collaboration between Google’s COVID-19 Mobility Reports and COVID-19 Aggregated Mobility Research Dataset projects, and researchers from multiple universities in the United States and around the globe.
“Researchers rely on data to find solutions to the challenges facing our society, but data must only be shared and used in a way that protects individual rights,” said Jules Polonetsky, CEO of the Future of Privacy Forum. “The teams at Stanford Medicine, Empatica, and Google employed a variety of techniques in their research to ensure data was used ethically – including developing strong criteria for potential partners, aggregating and anonymizing participant data, discarding data sets at risk of being re-identified, and conducting extensive ethics and privacy reviews.”
The FPF Award for Research Data Stewardship was established with the support of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a not-for-profit grantmaking institution that supports high-quality, impartial scientific research and institutions.
The FPF Award for Research Data Stewardship recognizes excellence in the privacy-protective stewardship of corporate data that is shared with academic researchers. The award highlights companies and academics who demonstrate novel best practices and approaches to sharing corporate data in order to advance scientific knowledge.
Stanford Medicine and Empatica Partnership
Smartwatches and other wearable devices that continuously measure biometric data can provide “digital vital signs” for the user. Dr. Mishra’s team, consisting of Dr. Michael Snyder, Erika Mahealani Hunting, Alessandra Celli, Arshdeep Chauhan, and Jessi Wanyi Li from the Stanford University School of Medicine’s Department of Genetics, received anonymized data from Empatica’s E4 wristband, including data on participants’ skin temperature, heart rate, and electrodermal activity. This data was collected by the Stanford Medicine team to study whether it could be used to detect COVID-19 infections prior to the onset of symptoms. To ensure that this data sharing project minimized potential privacy risks, both Empatica and the Stanford Medicine team took a number of steps, including:
- Establishing limits on the sharing and use of personal health information.
- Using a researcher-friendly device, Empatica’s E4, that prevents the collection of geolocation data, IP address, or mobile International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) identifiers.
- Using QR codes to link participants to specific wearable devices to ensure that participant names and study record IDs would not be shared.
“A large part of our job is to embed research and its results into products that will improve people’s lives.” Said Matteo Lai, CEO of Empatica, “Patients are always at the center of this endeavor, and so naturally are their needs: privacy, a great experience, a sense of safety, high quality are all part of our responsibility. We are honored that this approach and care is recognized as something to strive for.”
The research project is ongoing.
Google’s Community Mobility Information
Google has also been recognized with the second-annual FPF Award for Research Data Stewardship for its work to produce, aggregate, anonymize, and share data on community movement during the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to requests from public health officials, Google created Community Mobility Reports (CMRs) to provide aggregated, anonymized insights into how community mobility has changed in response to policies aimed at combating COVID-19. To ensure that personal data, including an individual’s location, movement, or contacts, cannot be derived from the metrics, the data included in Google’s CMRs goes through a robust anonymization process that employs differential privacy techniques while providing researchers and public health authorities with valuable insights to help inform official decision-making.
Google is also being recognized for a related project, the Aggregated Mobility Research Dataset. In addition to the COVID-19 CMR data, which were made publicly available online, this dataset was shared with specific qualified researchers for the sole purpose of studying the effects of COVID-19. The research was shared with qualified individual researchers (those with proven track records in studying epidemiology, public health, or infectious disease) that accepted the data under contractual commitments to use the data ethically while maintaining privacy. Google was also able to share more detailed mobility data with these researchers, while keeping strong mathematical privacy protections in place. Examples of research that utilized Google’s Aggregated Mobility Research Dataset include:
- Hierarchical organization of urban mobility and its connection with city livability
- Assessing the impact of coordinated COVID-19 exit strategies across Europe
- Forecasting influenza activity using machine-learned mobility map
- Examining COVID-19 forecasting using spatio-temporal graph neural networks
“As the COVID-19 crisis emerged, Google moved to support public health officials and researchers with resources to help manage the spread,” said Dr. Karen DeSalvo, Chief Health Officer, Google Health. “We heard from the public health community that mobility data could help provide them an understanding of whether people were social distancing to interrupt the spread. Given the sensitivity of mobility data, we needed to deliver this information in a privacy preserving way, and we’re honored to be recognized by FPF for our approach.”
Google ensured the protection of this shared data in both projects by:
- Anonymizing the Mobility Reports through differential privacy, which intentionally adds random noise to metrics in a manner that maintains both users’ privacy and the accuracy of the data.
- Organizing information by trips taken to different types of locations, rather than providing data about granular geographic areas to protect community privacy
- Requiring that Google review all publications using the Aggregated Mobility Research Dataset to ensure the researchers describe the dataset and its limitations correctly
- Developing strict privacy protocols agreements and partner criteria for the Aggregated Mobility Research Dataset.
Google’s privacy-driven approach was illustrated by the company’s direct collaboration with Prof. Gregory Wellenius, Boston University School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health, Dr. Thomas Tsai, Brigham and Women’s Hospital Department of Surgery and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Department of Health Policy and Management, and Dr. Ashish Jha, Dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health. The researchers evaluated the impacts of specific state-level policies on mobility and subsequent COVID-19 case trajectories using anonymized and aggregated mobility data from Google users who had opted-in to share their data for research. The shared data resulted in an academic paper which will be published in Nature Communications. The project found that state-level emergency declarations resulted in a 9.9% reduction in time spent away from places of residence, with the implementation of social distancing policies resulting in an additional 24.5% reduction in mobility the following week, and shelter-in-place mandates yielding a further 29% reduction in mobility. Notably, these decreases in mobility were associated with significant reductions in reported COVID-19 cases two to four weeks later.