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How Data About Americans’ Behavior Can Help Us to Safely Reopen the Economy

Kerry Bruce — Chief Executive Officer & Founder, Clear Outcomes
Nick Dowling — President & Chief Executive Officer, IDS International
Veronica Olazabal — Former Managing Director, Measurement, Evaluation & Organizational Performance, Strategic Learning & Impact, The Rockefeller Foundation

In the past few weeks, data culled from various sources and through different methods have given insights about the Covid-19 pandemic and how it is affecting our lives in the United States. Direct polls of Americans have shown rising levels of anxiety about the virus, while cell phone data and Google’s Community Mobility Reports reveal how much we are, or are not, moving and traveling outside our homes. Similarly, data from apps like Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash reveal that we are making fewer trips and placing more online orders.

So far, data has been lacking on one important subject: how people in the U.S. are responding and adhering to statewide stay-at-home orders and social and physical distancing measures; hygiene practices like washing hands and wiping down packages and groceries; and newly released guidelines on wearing masks to reduce the spread of Covid-19.

Two companies, IDS International, a government national security and evaluation contractor, and Clear Outcomes, a woman-owned consultancy of evaluation and public health specialists, have joined forces to apply evaluative, public health, and national security-oriented thinking around behaviors that aim to prevent Covid-19 transmission. The project focuses on the collection and analysis of behavioral data to determine public compliance with guidelines and the impact of these measures against Covid-19. These analyses will also take into account regional, racial, income-level, age, and gender differences as well as perform comparative analysis with factors including infection rates and local policies such as lockdown measures.

Data that helps us understand if and how Americans are adhering to behavioral guidelines … can support leaders to make informed decisions moving forward.

In addition to conducting weekly surveys with a nationally representative sample over the next month, the research team has created an online crowdsourced Behavior Safety Survey that can be completed at any time. In order to understand and capture the complexity of human behavior, using additional data sources and methods is required—and there is so much relevant transactional and human-generated data to consider. In a world where data fusion and integration can enable powerful and rapid analysis, the research team also aggregates third-party behavioral data from other surveys and from non-survey methods (e.g. cell phone data).

Initial findings from the first nationwide survey completed on April 6, 2020 include:

  1. Mask usage is off to a promising start. Just one day after the CDC recommended wearing masks to reduce the spread of Covid-19, 41% of Americans reported they “usually” or “always” wear a mask when leaving the house.
  2. Americans are good at washing their hands, but worse at wiping down packages.  Almost 60% said that they are washing their hands at least 5 times per day and almost 90% are washing their hands at least 3 times a day.  But only 53% are “usually” or “always” wiping down groceries or delivery boxes.
  3. We’re not great at adhering to physical and social distancing guidelines. 75% of Americans surveyed had contact (inside of 6 feet) with a new person or people outside their household in the past five days, and 38% had contact with at least 3 new people.

Public health officials, governments, businesses, and other decision-makers are now considering how to safely re-open our workplaces and communities. Data that helps us understand if and how Americans are adhering to behavioral guidelines like physical and social distancing, wearing of masks, and handwashing can support leaders to make informed decisions moving forward. For example, are different parts of the population following the guidelines differently, and what effect might that have on the spread of the virus? To what degree are people voluntarily following guidelines on wearing masks or disinfecting packages, and can we determine how effective those levels of compliance are in preventing outbreaks?  Could requirements for face masks, gloves, disinfection, and spacing tables at least six feet apart allow for the safer reopening of sit-down restaurants?

The Rockefeller Foundation and other experts have called for widespread testing and contact tracing to get Americans back to work more safely. Data and evaluative thinking, as being done by IDS International and Clear Outcomes, could also be an essential approach to assessing what comes next.

For more information on the project please contact or

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