Google’s Detailed Report Shows the State of Countries Adhering to Social Distancing
Google used location data which it procured from smartphones to aid public health officials better understand how people’s movements have changed in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown imposed in many countries across the globe. Did Google hire remote workers, since everyone is working from home as we know, is a question that remains unanswered. Google recently announced the release of its COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports on a blog post.
In this report, they used data from people who have opted in to storing their location history with Google. This will help them illustrate the degree to which people are adhering to government instructions to shelter in place and, where possible, work from home.
Communities from across the globe are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. We can see that the emphasis on public health strategies like social distancing measures, which helps vastly in slowing down the rate of transmission have been imposed by the governments. Google already used to aggregate anonymized data showing how busy certain types of places are via Google Maps, which has helped identify when a local business tends to be the most crowded. This same type of aggregated, anonymized data could be helpful to public health officials as they make critical decisions to combat COVID-19.
The reports are available to view for anyone. It covers 131 countries to start; and in many locations users can search for region specific data, examining reports for individual states, provinces, and counties. Once you select a geographic region, Google will generate a PDF with the data it has collected. Google chooses PDFs over web pages because they could be more easily downloaded and shared with workers in the field.
Every single report that you will see contains information about movement patterns in six different categories:
- The first category is retail and recreation which covers visits to restaurants, cafes, shopping centres, theme parks, museums, libraries, movie theaters, and similar locations.
- The next is grocery and pharmacy, covering supermarkets, food warehouses, farmers markets, speciality food shops, and drug stores.
- Parks, covering public beaches, marinas, dog parks, plazas, and other public spaces.
- Transit stations, covering subway stops and bus and train stations.
Workplaces, covering offices.
- Residences, covering people’s homes.
A sample report for the UK showed steep declines to retail and recreation locations and transit stations, with a moderate uptick in time spent at home.
The percentage changes reflect the difference between movement this month and late January.
Technology companies have been asked by government agencies and health officials to share more data to aid in the coronavirus response. According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, mobile advertising companies were similarly sharing anonymized, aggregated data with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They are also sharing the data with state and local governments to help officials understand the spread of the disease and coordinate their response.
Google’s mobility report is intended to help public health officials who need to prioritize their response based on areas of greater need. They may help a county official understand that its parks remain overcrowded despite an order to shelter in place, for example — or that its parks are properly empty, but its transit stations remain too crowded. This rightly allows them to consider changing or amplifying messages to their communities about the need to stay away.
All those countries which have had more success in fighting COVID-19 have done so by imposing aggressive testing and contact-tracing regimes, and also by making invasive use of location data. Taiwan is one such example where the government is using location data to create ‘electronic fences’ around quarantined citizens. They are monitoring their movements to ensure they remain at home and in isolation.
The data released by Google, as the tech giant says, does not include personally identifiable information or show the number of visits to any particular category. The company has considered requests from public health officials to disclose more data for contact tracing. This will be done by using an individual’s location to identify other people who may have been around them during the time they were infectious.
Lastly, Google is also considering using location history data in order to show how crowded hospitals and other medical facilities had become. However, there is a catch; this location data can’t distinguish between healthcare workers, patients, and visitors, making the value of sharing such information questionable.
The company is planning to update the data in the reports in the future. They did not however mention when they are going to do so.
Google also aims to collaborate with epidemiologists working on COVID-19. This comes in the light to update an existing datasets of aggregated and heavily anonymized information to help forecast the path of the pandemic and have a crystal clear out look on the same. The pandemic is affecting every sector globally and such reports can definitely provide much needed insights for industry leaders in every sector including IT, healthcare, manufacturing, retail etc. This will especially boost the existing web and mobile app development services.