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UW-Madison faculty, students help create COVID-19 app for Wisconsinites

May 4, 2020 By Debra Pierce
Someone types on a cell phone in front of a computer screen.

The Wisconsin Connect app allows Wisconsinites to receive and give help to others, and it corrects misinformation trending on social media. Submitted photo

COVID-19 Wisconsin Connect, a free desktop and mobile app that provides accurate information, social support and helpful resources to Wisconsinites, launches today. The Center for Health Enhancement Systems Studies (CHESS) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison developed the app in partnership with government, academic, medical, business and community organizations statewide.

The desktop app can be accessed at​ [Editor’s note: it’s no longer available as of 2023]; the mobile app is under review by the Apple App and Google Play stores, and is expected to be available in early May.

The app offers a unique combination of advantages over other COVID-19 apps. It’s the first locally-designed app, allowing users to both receive and give help to others in their  communities while correcting state-specific misinformation trending on social media. In addition, free meditations by Healthy Minds Innovations allow users to stay  ‘in app’ to get vital relaxation exercises. App content will be frequently updated, as Wisconsin’s strategies for mitigating COVID-19 evolve over time. Content in the ‘misinformation’ section of the app will be updated weekly.

The CWC app is designed for all Wisconsin residents, including those sheltering-in-place, under quarantine, working in essential jobs or soon returning to work as Wisconsin opens. A marketing program is in place to encourage Wisconsinites across the state to access the app, but those with higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, namely older adults, Latinos and African-Americans, are particularly targeted. Reflecting the diversity of the state, some content is in Spanish and Hmong, and more content will be translated after launch. Marketing support includes paid advertisements, public service announcements, press materials and social media.

The app includes seven key sections:

  • Discussion Rooms: a live, open chat group; anonymous, moderated.​
  • COVID-19 Fact Checker:​ identifies misinformation circulating on social media specifically in Wisconsin, with vetted facts to address it (English and Spanish).
  • Calming – by Healthy Minds Innovations: audio meditations to teach the skills of​ stress reduction, resilience, and social connectedness.
  • Prevent & Protect​: at-a-glance tutorials for prevention techniques (some in Spanish).
  • Resource Center:​ additional resources, such as health statistics, sobriety, and help for victims of domestic victims; some content is in Spanish and Hmong.
  • All About COVID-19: Step-by-step instructions, a screening tool and symptom​ tracking logs, provided through a partnership with the Wisconsin Department of Health

Services (offered in Spanish, Hmong and Chinese Mandarin).

  • Coping:​ Coming soon. Will feature handling kids, worry, conflict, grief, and more.

A team of academic, business and government experts worked virtually while sheltering-in-place during the past five weeks to develop and market the app; most of the team members have never even met face-to-face. A team from CHESS programmed the software and developed the content while collaborating with a range of community health and neighborhood organizations across Wisconsin to tailor app content to meet their COVID informational needs.

UW-Madison students helped work on the Wisconsin Connect project through spring semester. Pictured on this conference call are several of them. From left to right, top to bottom, are Allyson Konz, junior; Katie Herrick, senior; Amanda Mizera, junior, Emma Maxon, senior; Debra Pierce, faculty associate; Bailey Owens, senior; and Professor Doug McLeod. Submitted photo

Another team from the university’s Center for Communication and Civic Renewal (CCCR) at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication (SJMC) developed systems for tracking misinformation on social media  and executed the marketing plan to launch the app. In addition, faculty and graduate students at the CCRC vet content for the misinformation section of the app.  CHESS team members also collaborated with Healthy Minds Innovations, which was founded by the world renowned neuroscientist Dr. Richard J. Davidson, to provide in-app Covid-19 specific audio meditations and coping exercises.

In all, more than​ 30 UW-Madison faculty, staff and students worked on the app while teaching and attending spring online classes.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services is providing background information ​ for​  moderators in the Discussion Rooms and in the All About COVID-19 section regarding testing, isolation and quarantining.

“We compressed months of work into five short weeks in order to get this important tool into the hands of people across the state,” said David Gustafson, Sr., CHESS Founder and Director. “We fast-adapted existing CHESS app technology that CHESS has used to address other health challenges, including breast cancer, lung cancer, substance use disorder, and multiple chronic conditions. More than thirty years of research about online health interventions has repeatedly shown that CHESS apps, whether delivered on a smartphone or website, improve quality of life and other health outcomes,” he said.

The COVID-19 app follows the successful CHESS formula: patients and family caregivers need a way to connect with others who are going through the same thing so they can give and receive support; they need access to a carefully chosen set of verified, and trustworthy, information; and they need tools to ease distress, support motivation and engage with treatment.

The app is an important resource to help Wisconsinites manage through COVID-19, no matter where they live, their  background, or their level of health risk, according to Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Chief Medical Officer of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services and a principal investigator on this project. “It contains helpful, vetted  information, and allows Wisconsinites to share insights and advice with others in their own  communities.  Importantly, it’s an evolving resource.  The content provided in the app will be updated over time, as the impact of COVID evolves,” he said.

Funding for the project was provided by The Wisconsin Partnership Program (WPP) through the School of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

“WPP is pleased to support this project as part of our funding response to COVID-19,” said Dr. Amy Kind, chair of the WPP Oversight and Advisory Committee, and associate professor in the Department of Medicine in the School of Medicine and Public Health.  “We recognize that every Wisconsin community is facing unprecedented challenges as a result of this pandemic, and that the impact of those challenges may differ across cities, townships and neighborhoods. We also recognize that the best solutions to these challenges must take Wisconsin’s rich diversity into account.  This project respects Wisconsin’s diversity by providing a powerful, locally tailored tool to help accurately inform, connect and support individuals and families across the state as we continue to navigate the impacts of COVID-19 now, and into the future. In addition, it engages many trusted partners, including the University of Wisconsin, the UW School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH), the Department of Health Services and a broad and diverse range of community organizations that span Wisconsin.”