A Personalized Avatar-Based Web Application to Help People Understand How Social Distancing Can Reduce the Spread of COVID-19


To reduce the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and the associated spread of COVID-19, many jurisdictions around the world imposed mandatory or recommended social or physical distancing. As a result, at the beginning of the pandemic, various communication materials appeared online to promote distancing. Explanations of the science underlying these mandates or recommendations were either highly technical or highly simplified.


This study aimed to understand the effects of a dynamic visualization on distancing. Our overall aim was to help people understand the dynamics of the spread of COVID-19 in their community and the implications of their own behavior for themselves, those around them, the health care system, and society.


Using Scrum, which is an agile framework; JavaScript (Vue.js framework); and code already developed for risk communication in another context of infectious disease transmission, we rapidly developed a new personalized web application. In our application, people make avatars that represent themselves and the people around them. These avatars are integrated into a 3-minute animation illustrating an epidemiological model for COVID-19 transmission, showing the differences in transmission with and without distancing. During the animation, the narration explains the science of how distancing reduces the transmission of COVID-19 in plain language in English or French. The application offers full captions to complement the narration and a descriptive transcript for people using screen readers. We used Google Analytics to collect standard usage statistics. A brief, anonymous, optional survey also collected self-reported distancing behaviors and intentions in the previous and coming weeks, respectively. We launched and disseminated the application on Twitter and Facebook on April 8, 2020, and April 9, 2020.


After 26 days, the application received 3588 unique hits from 82 countries. The optional survey at the end of the application collected 182 responses. Among this small subsample of users, survey respondents were nearly (170/177, 96%) already practicing distancing and indicated that they intended to practice distancing in the coming week (172/177, 97.2%). Among the small minority of people (n=7) who indicated that they had not been previously practicing distancing, 2 (29%) reported that they would practice distancing in the week to come.


We developed a web application to help people understand the relationship between individual-level behavior and population-level effects in the context of an infectious disease spread. This study also demonstrates how agile development can be used to quickly create personalized risk messages for public health issues like a pandemic. The nonrandomized design of this rapid study prevents us from concluding the application’s effectiveness; however, results thus far suggest that avatar-based visualizations may help people understand their role in infectious disease transmission.

Étienne, D., Archambault, P., Aziaka, D., Chipenda-Dansokho, S., Dubé, È., Fallon, C., Hakim, H., Kindrachuk, J., Krekoum, D., MacDonald, S. E., Ndjaboué, R., Noubi, M., Paquette, J. S., Parent, E., Witteman, HO., A Personalized Avatar-Based Web Application to Help People Understand How Social Distancing Can Reduce the Spread of COVID-19: Cross-sectional, Observational, Pre-Post Study. JMIR From Res. 2023;7:e38430. doi: 10.2196/38430. (https://formative.jmir.org/2023/1/e38430)