New Google Tool Taps Location Data to Measure Effectiveness of Social Distancing

Henrietta Brewer
April 5, 2020

Google will start releasing movement tracking reports in a bid to help public health officials determine how successful physical distancing measures have been in the effort to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

The number of visits to groceries and pharmacies in Italy fell by 85% and 76% in Spain.

Visits to public spaces such as parks have fallen by 57% while the amount of travel to workplaces has reduced by 46%.

Google didn't immediately respond to an inquiry from Fast Company about possible reasons for the apparent differences in park use.

Interestingly, while all states saw a decline in activity at most nonresidential categories, including retail and recreation, transit stations, pharmacy and grocery, and workplaces, they were divided on the use of one type of location-parks.

The Community Mobile Reports cover 131 countries and regions, but only the U.S. gets reports for states as well.

The first report covers the period between February 16 and March 29, and revels the impact emergency orders have had on movement trends.

Other tech firms are also making their users' location records available to organizations involved in the global coronavirus response.

However, in states like Wyoming and North Dakota, both of which have very small numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases and are not under mandatory shelter-in-place orders as of Friday afternoon, the data tells a different story.

Facebook is also sharing some location data with researchers and governments, but has not made their findings public.

"These reports were developed to be helpful while adhering to our stringent privacy protocols and protecting people's privacy".

The internet giant's COVID-19 reports use aggregated, anonymized data to chart movement trends over time by geography, showing trends over several weeks with the most recent information reflecting the last 48-72 hours.

What data is included in the calculation depends on user settings, connectivity, and whether it meets our privacy threshold. "Ultimately, understanding not only whether people are traveling, but also trends in destinations, can help officials design guidance to protect public health and essential needs of communities". People who do not wish to have their data be used for this objective can turn off the location feature and delete their Location History data.

Like the detection of traffic jams on Google Maps, the new reports will use "aggregated, anonymised" data from users who have activated their location with the aim of helping governments gauge success in social distancing.

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