UW-Madison launches new, free COVID-19 resource

Posted at 7:08 AM, May 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-04 08:08:40-04

The University of Wisconsin-Madison has unveiled a new resource to help people across the state cope with, and eventually rebound from, the coronavirus pandemic.

COVID-19 Wisconsin Connect went live here Monday morning.

"When the pandemic happened, people here on campus said, 'We should be doing something about this,'" said Mike Wagner, a professor at UW-Madison's School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

Building the website and a corresponding app, which will also be released this week, was a collaborative effort.

Wagner said the basic model/hardware for the website came from the UW's Center for Health Enhancement System Studies (CHESS), which took technology it previously used in applications for other, medical research and adapted it to COVID-19.

Faculty members and students from the Center for Communications and Civic Renewal, and the School of Journalism, worked on a marketing plan for the application and website to make the public aware of it.

They also helped to construct a portion of the application that deals with dispelling misinformation about the coronavirus.

"We really wanted to find a way to use the Wisconsin Idea to help people in Wisconsin who are facing this COVID-19 pandemic," Wagner said.

He said CHESS previously constructed apps that included the capability for chatting and social support groups, to cater to users struggling with addictions like alcoholism or drug use.

That same technology on the COVID-19 Wisconsin Connect website and mobile app will allow its users to chat with one another. In the discussion rooms, people can share their concerns about COVID-19, or ask the moderators for help when sifting through information related to the virus.

The website also features a section devoted to answering common questions and/or misconceptions about COVID-19.

Wagner said he and other researchers scoured the social media site Twitter for common misconceptions about the coronavirus. They fed that information into a computer algorithm, which could then continue to carry out the work at a faster speed.

"It's a huge process that included students, and us, hand coding tweets and then teaching machines how to code based on the work we've done as humans," Wagner said.

"Then we get a sense of what's true and what things aren't true based upon the work we've done. We can also get a sense of what kinds of things aren't true but are percolating here in Wisconsin," he added. "We can get a better understanding of what's out there, and where that information is moving. Is it spreading quickly?"

The other major portion of the website focuses on providing people with resources to help with mental health.

For example, Wagner said users can turn to COVID-19 Wisconsin Connect for free instruction on meditation, rather than paying for a meditation app.

He said the university will continue to add more features to the website, and make modifications as necessary, based on what's happening with the virus in Wisconsin.

"COVID-19's not going away," Wagner said. "Even when the curve flattens and the people infected dwindle down, we're still going to be dealing with the economic fallout and the overall mental health fallout of all this. Plus, we'll be working on ways to make sure we don't have a new spike in cases."

Wagner said the development and testing of an application like COVID-19 Wisconsin Connect would usually take 6-12 months. At UW-Madison, to meet the urgent demands of the coronavirus pandemic, the new website and app were developed in five weeks.

"This is an example of what a public university can do, and we're happy to be helping in any way we can," Wagner said.

In addition to English, the website and mobile app can be viewed in Spanish and Hmong.

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