Google is now using the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to keep track of what users do and where they go during the pandemic.
It collects location data from billions of smartphone users to show their movements as governments across the world lockdown cities to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
The Google mobility reports show how busy a specific location is on Google Maps without identifying individual people. These reports are available on a new website known as “COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports.”
According to Karen DeSalvo, (the chief health officer for Google Health), and Jen Fitzpatrick, (the Google senior vice president), this type of anonymized and combined data can be beneficial for the government to make critical decisions regarding the prevention of coronavirus. Currently, the data is available for about 131 countries including the US.
Selecting a specific region on the website generates a PDF report which shows the rise or drop in the percentage of people visiting different types of places, such as recreational spaces like shopping centers, restaurants, museums; pharmacy stores and grocery; transit stations; public beaches and parks; residences and workplaces.
For example, a report for California has shown a larger dip in crowds in places like cafés, restaurants, and public transport hubs, while the number of people who stayed at home was significantly smaller.
Google’s movement data is probably more reliable than third-party location data.
However, looking at their Austria report, I can’t believe visits to ‘retail & recreation’ places have decreased only 87%. All those places are closed, staff is mostly absent.https://t.co/Dc1BsL5ey0 pic.twitter.com/7uOB3mTLP5
— Wolfie Christl (@WolfieChristl) April 3, 2020
On the other hand, In Italy, the visits to cafés, restaurants, libraries, and museums have dropped by almost 95% in comparison to the baseline.
Google is planning to update its website with additional countries and regions hoping that the data can be helpful for the public health officials to make better decisions while dealing with the pandemic.
However, the reports are based on data collected from users who have activated the location history setting in their Google accounts. So, this doesn’t show the precise movement of a wider population.
Since the middle of March, Facebook has also made similar data available to more than 40 health researchers.
Moreover, the Wall Street Journal has recently published a report according to which mobile advertising companies have started sharing aggregated and anonymous data of users with the CDC, and local governments, to better understand the spread of COVID-19.