CO-Away: a digital tool to help northern communities address COVID-19

Co-created with Indigenous communities in northern Saskatchewan, the project leverages locally crowd-sourced data to make informed decisions

July 2020

By: Monique Rodrigues; Communications Specialist, Mitacs, Vancouver

When the second wave of the Spanish flu hit Canada over 100 years ago, the effect was even more devastating than that of its first wave. In fact, 90 percent of the deaths happened in the fall of 1918, during the pandemic’s second peak.

The deaths were numerous across the country, but the mortality rate was notably higher in northern communities, in great part due to first contact with such viruses. “The wave comes slowly to remote communities, but it has a higher impact,” explains Dr. Tarun Katapally, a patient-oriented research leader and professor at the University of Regina’s Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy.

Dr. Katapally is currently leading a Mitacs-funded research team on the development of a digital platform that will help monitor, mitigate, and better manage the spread of COVID-19 in Indigenous and northern communities.

The project’s structure comes from the existing Smart Platform, an evidence-based global digital policy tool developed by Dr. Katapally that integrates citizen science and community-based participatory research to assess health data and inform preventative policies. All data sourced is co-shared and co-owned with the communities involved.

“We wanted to work with a community that would benefit the most from our tool, and also be better prepared for multiple waves,” he explains.

Expected to be completed in phases over 15 months, the expedited project started in May and was one of the many that went through the fast-tracked Mitacs approval process especially for COVID-19 solutions.

Collaborating with Indigenous communities to tackle health challenges

The project will culminate with the creation of an app-based program called CO-Away, to be implemented as a pilot in Île-à-la-Crosse — a mostly Métis community in northern Saskatchewan. Based on the Smart Platform, the program is simultaneously a research and decision-making tool.

Through the platform, researchers gather health behavioural and outcome data that is shared by citizens. Different than a contact tracing app, it is grounded in real-time engagement with citizens, who will self-monitor and report symptoms and interactions while engaging with the research team as equal partners.

“What we’re trying to do is to give a voice to Indigenous peoples, and we’re using technology to do that,” Dr. Katapally explains. “And the data will support evidence-based containment strategies and policies.”

One of the first steps of the research was creating the Île-à-la-Crosse Citizen Scientists Advisory Council — which includes the town’s mayor, the CEO of the School Division, three high school students, two elders, and a social worker. Through discussing the community’s actual needs with the research team and sharing what they would like to see implemented, they are laying the foundation of CO-Away.

For instance, within the first meetings, the group understood that they would need to expand the tool beyond COVID-19 to tackle other needs such as developing mental health resources for youth.

“This technology could really put us in an advantageous position when it comes to health issues,” says Île-à-la-Crosse’s Mayor Duane Favel. “For example, by alerting people when they have a symptom, some of the health issues could be caught and addressed a lot sooner.”

For Favel, the collaborative nature of this project gives the community a sense of accomplishment as they’re able to follow its evolution and understand the benefits. He says that the members of the advisory committee are very excited and hopeful to engage all citizens.

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