Symptom app helps VG readers deal with virus in early days

By Dawn McMullan


Dallas, Texas, United States

VG worked with local health officials on the free app, which was released within the first week of Norway’s official lockdown and was quickly translated into eight other languages.

INMA spoke to Geir Larsen, senior product manager VG, and Ola Stenberg, product director, about the app. Here’s what they shared. 

INMA: Tell us about the app and how the idea came about.

VG: There was and still is a lot of talking about symptoms and many, many people were uncertain how to interpret symptoms. At the same time, doctors’ offices were bursting at capacity. In our search for a solution, we discovered that Hälso-och sjukvårdsförvaltningen, the publicly financed healthcare and public transport in Stockholm, had created a symptom test that was described as very good.

We contacted them for permission to use what they had made. Why start from scratch when something out there works well? At the same time, we started a process with the Norwegian Health Directorate to collaborate on a Norwegian version. It was important for us on this project that the end result was approved by the authorities. 

The VG team worked with local health officials to offer the sympto app to readers.
The VG team worked with local health officials to offer the sympto app to readers.

INMA: How difficult was it to create this app? Was it created in-house? And how long did it take from idea to release? 

VG: It is not technically complicated per sé, but there was still a lot to consider:

  • First, quality assurance. The test needed to be 100% correct from a health perspective and 100% correct in terms of outcome for the user. No room for errors. 
  • Time was of the essence! Depending on the outcome of the test, of course, but getting immediate medical attention and self-isolation was advice given, potentially reducing further spreading of disease.
  • Asking for and handling such personal information obviously raises questions about privacy issues. The chief privacy and data trends officer at Schibsted was involved from the very beginning, ensuring that users’ privacy was taken into account. On the technical side, we had to spend time decoupling any tracking, etc., that was built into components being used. 
  • We were still in the first week of lockdown and still learning to cooperate in distributed teams, working from home. 
  • The app was created in-house by a truly cross functional team. The communication with governmental authority Helsedirektoratet started Thursday March 19, two engineers were freed up from elsewhere in Schibsted Monday 23, and the test was launched Wednesday 25 on and three other newspapers. 

INMA: It originally was released in Norwegian and then you expanded to other languages. Can explain why and how you did that?

VG: Yes, when it was launched March 25, it was Norwegian only. The idea of translating the test was aired already, but as typical with these types of hastily developed services, there were some wrinkles that needed to be ironed out first. 

During the coming week, it became apparent that Oslo had challenges with large outbreaks among its immigrant citizens. Several efforts were made to communicate better towards these, and at VG we saw that our symptom test also could contribute to a better situation. 

This coincided with the news of Schibsted setting up a grant for its newspapers, supporting initiatives towards young people and the foreign language part of the population. (Link, Google translated). So we decided to translate the test immediately after Easter vacation, again in understanding with the governmental Helsedirektoratet.

A sports reporter fluent in English and French was in charge of recruiting professional translators for the rest of the languages. We chose languages based on the largest immigrant population (according to official numbers) combined with languages we saw Oslo municipality also supported. 

A Google Sheet was set up for the purpose, and several translators worked simultaneously to complete text for eight new languages. While this was being done, developers rebuilt the service to accommodate for language versions and a designer worked out the slight changes needed.

We also spent some time on how to best get this shared in social media. As the target group might not be frequent readers of VG, we needed customised sharable texts for the appropriate Facebook groups etc. After three days, we could offer the test to users in a total of nine languages. 

Details of the number of those tested who died, were hospitalised, required a respirator, etc.
Details of the number of those tested who died, were hospitalised, required a respirator, etc.

INMA: What staff is in charge of the project?

VG: It has truly been a cross-functional team effort: 

  • Product Manager Geir Larsen in the VG team coordinated the work.
  • We had one reporter and editor from the newsroom in VG.
  • Two engineers from a central team in Schibsted (not embedded with publishers) joined the team.
  • Two designers from teams quite far from VG product and tech joined and cooperated.
  • Chief privacy and data trends officer ensured everything privacy related was on track.
  • We created a dedicated Slack-channel was where many others pitched in to solve issues when needed.

INMA: How has audience response been? 

VG: In terms of numbers, the test was obviously most used in the weeks when the spreading of the virus peaked. We accumulated well over a million page views and a very high completion rate. Our social media team communicated the test to several groups on Facebook, and they in turn distributed the link and information in their networks through WhatsApp and Facebook. Political parties in Oslo also helped to spread the knowledge of the test.

INMA: What were the goals with the app and have they been met? 

VG: The ultimate goal was for users to get as good indications regarding their health situation as possible in a situation with an extreme strain on the Norwegian health system. 

From a product point of view, we hoped could contribute to that by making a self-explanatory and easy-to-use test. A total of 90% of all users finished the test and were given adequate advice, a completion rate that was way higher than expected.

INMA: How does this initiative differ from other COVID-19 content initiatives VG has done? 

VG: In addition to the traditional editorial efforts, an extensive service with all relevant statistics has been the backbone of VG’s coverage. In Norway, this service has been the authoritative source for all international, national, and local spread of the disease. 

As in all of journalism, the closer the more relevant for the individual user, the better.This initiative, giving individuals results based on their personal experience, provides relevant information on a 1:1 basis.

About Dawn McMullan

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