University College Utrecht alumna leads German corona study

One of the students of the first hour at the pioneering University College Utrecht back in 1998, Annelies Blom is now in charge of the Mannheim Corona Study, a daily online panel survey about people’s lives and opinions during the coronavirus outbreak.

Annelies Blom
Photo: Lea Kratschmann

“The nation-wide survey existed already as a project of the Collaborative Research Center or SBF 884 Political Economy of Reforms,” explains Annelies, who is presently Professor for Data Sciences at University of Mannheim in Germany. She has been heading in the project right from the start eight years ago. “We were lucky in already having a tool that made it easy for us to switch from the regular survey to the corona-specific more intensive data collection. This gives us plenty of information about how the coronavirus and the measures taken affect people’s daily behaviour and opinions.”

“The project was were already prepared to react to external shocks very quickly. For example, after the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, we were in the field three days later. I believe ours is world-wide the only project that can build on an existing probability sample of the general population, as we have collected information already before the corona outbreak. Unique is also that we are now able to collect information this extensively on a daily basis. This is how we can draw a picture of society before,  during and after the coronavirus pandemic.”


In the Mannheim Corona Study, which runs since 20 March, the researchers collect data with questionnaires sent to a general population sample of 4,000 people, who were recruited into the study via probability sampling procedures from the German population registers. The fact that the reports are now also being used by the German government is telling of the data quality. Now in its sixth week, the survey is planned to continue at least ten more weeks. “That is how we hopefully will also get information about what happens when people move back to their regular life when the coronavirus measures are relaxed step by step.”

Are there outcomes that you would not have expected beforehand or come as a surprise?

“There are quite a few things. For example, in the beginning, people reported having reduced their personal contacts to a great extend, but since a couple of weeks we see that they are meeting friends more frequently again. Another example is the attitude towards a complete lockdown. A month ago, more than half of respondents considered it appropriate, but by now it is only a quarter. We also see that people have become less anxious about the situation and feel less threatened by the virus. They are clearly adapting to the new circumstances.”

“Another interesting fact is that only a little more than twenty percent of the population reports that they are presently working from home. That may be lower than you’d expect, if you everyone around you is exclusively working from home. But if you think of it, there are plenty of jobs that simply can’t be done from home.”

annelies blom
Annelies playing trombone on campus in 1998

Friends for life

More than twenty years ago, Annelies came to University College Utrecht out of sheer curiosity. That the college had been established only shortly, did not worry her at all. “It was not that I had any particular plan in mind”, she says. “I thought it would be exciting and went. Although I grew up in a few different places, my background is Dutch, and already for that reason I didn’t mind studying in the Netherlands. Perhaps because I grew up bilingually, I wasn’t scared of studying in a new language, and I quite liked the idea of doing my studies in English. And in any case, I very much wanted to study in an international environment. When we started, the buildings were not fully finished yet, and the curriculum is certainly more comprehensive now than it was back then, but the three years in Utrecht were certainly rewarding.”

After graduating, Annelies continued her studies with a Master’s programme in Oxford, then moved to London for a job in data sciences and finally came to Mannheim, first to work for the European Social Survey and then at University of Mannheim. “University College Utrecht broadens your horizon. It was actually quite a shocking experience, right after high school. At the college, I felt for the first time in my life that I was allowed to be a nerd, to like learning about many things. I enjoyed the international atmosphere enormously, and perhaps most important of all, I found friends for life there. We still meet every year, and the group keeps growing with more and more children joining in.”