Fighting the next epidemic with the Typo Challenge

Dr Anne Cori and Dr Marc Baguelin explain why they need the public’s help to help make data on epidemics like Ebola and Zika more accurate.

Controlling epidemics relies on key decisions, like how many hospital beds are needed and who should be vaccinated or treated first. These decisions rely on data about people who are infected, but mistakes can be made when entering information, which can lead to incorrect decisions being made.

What is the Typo Challenge?

The Typo Challenge is a fun challenge where you are asked to type dates into an app on your computer, laptop, tablet or phone, which helps us collect information about what kind of mistakes people make when they enter dates electronically. With this information we want to create software for researchers trying to better understand how epidemics spread so when they receive data about epidemics in the future they will be able to automatically check the results for accuracy by using the software.

How can the public help with the Typo Challenge?

We need as many people as possible from different backgrounds from all over the world to take the Typo Challenge. The different ways people from varying backgrounds type dates – and inevitably make mistakes – will help us understand how and why these errors are made when typing dates during data collection. Data collection in the field, such as during an epidemic like Ebola in west Africa, tends to include a large number of dates, which is why we’re focusing on this type of information.

Take the Typo Challenge

How long does the Typo Challenge take?

You can take the Typo Challenge for as much time as you like. Even if you enter one date, this will help reach our current target of 20,000 entries, which we need to be able to usefully analyse the errors people make when they type dates.

Can anyone take part?

Anyone who is over 18 years of age can take part. Anyone under 18 would need the consent of their parents or guardians to take part, which we’re unfortunately unable to process as part of this project. If you are over 18, all you need is access to the Internet anywhere in the world.

Can I take the Typo Challenge on my phone?

Yes, you will just need to say so when prompted during the Typo Challenge so that we capture the kinds of errors people make when typing on a phone. This will actually be helpful for our research.

How many entries do you need to be able to find out about errors people make when typing dates?

We are aiming to recruit the largest possible number of people to take the Typo Challenge, within a six-week period. We have calculated that we would need a minimum of 20,000 dates entered to get enough information on the kinds of errors people make when entering dates. Assuming there is a probability of errors being made 5% of the time, this would give us a sample of 250 errors, which should be large enough to understand the types and frequencies of errors. If we haven’t reached this target within six weeks, we will consider extending the time period until we have a large enough sample size.

Does making an error mean I have done something wrong?

Not at all. Errors in data entry happen all the time. In fact, if you happen to make any errors (genuinely rather than on purpose!) this will help us understand why and how often this happens and will help us build the software we need. Please don’t make errors on purpose as we need to collect information about real errors only.

What will you do with the data once it is collected?

We are going to create some software for researchers to use with data which has been collected in the field during an epidemic. This will mean that when researchers receive data about epidemics in the future they will be able to automatically check the results for accuracy by using this software. We have a prototype working and hope to develop a final version of the software within six months to a year after the end of the Typo Challenge, so it will hopefully be ready in Spring-Summer 2019. We will test the software we develop on mock data from an epidemic generated by a computer simulator, and on real data – probably from the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.

Why is it so important that members of the public take the Typo Challenge?

Without people from many different backgrounds and countries and using different keyboards entering dates in the Typo Challenge, we a) won’t get enough entries; and b) we won’t get a good spread of people typing on different keyboards who write and understand dates in different ways, for example; month, day, year compared to day, month, year. These are all things which will make the information we collect from the Typo Challenge richer and allow us to make better software to be used in future epidemics and hopefully save lives. We involved members of the public when we were developing the Typo Challenge, creating the website and the video about the Typo Challenge. 

How do the public find out what happens with the study if they want to know more?

People who take the Typo Challenge have an option to leave their email address if they want to know more about this study and the results. We intend to set up a webpage about the study, our results and how they have been used. We want people to understand how valuable their contribution to this study was and how it has helped us better understand epidemics and possibly save lives!

The Typo Challenge has been developed by:

  • the NIHR Health Protection Research Unit in Modelling Methodology at Imperial College London, in partnership with Public Health England
  • the NIHR Health Protection Research Unit in Immunisation at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, in partnership with Public Health England
  • the Medical Research Council Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London

Dr Anne Cori is a mathematical and statistical modeller at Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Outbreak Analysis and Modelling based at Imperial’s School of Public Health.

Dr Marc Baguelin is a mathematical modeller working at the Immunisation department at Public Health England and at the London of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.


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