In an effort to help governments and public health officials understand what is needed to support critical infrastructure during the period of social distancing, Google has publicly released massive amounts of location data segmented by geographic location. The tech giant has made it very clear that this data does not include personally identifiable information or specific user location data; it is simply a base of aggregated, anonymized data to help governments tackle virus related problems and understand the needs of the general public.
Community Mobility Maps
Google is calling these insights into data from users “COVID19 Community Mobility Maps,” and the study of how social distancing and shelter in place measures are affecting people’s behaviors is available for 131 countries, each with its own downloadable PDF. Each report offers location data spanning over approximately the last two to three months, and they examine in detail movement across six groups of activity: Retail and Recreation, Grocery and Pharmacy, Workplaces, Transit Stations, Parks, and Residential. Each country’s report is divided into subsections for individual provinces and states. The reports that publish user location data for the United States are somewhat more categorized, and each state’s PDF includes detailed information for every county.
This aggregated, anonymized data from users varies from country to country, and there is a direct relationship between the confinement measures implemented by health officials and the contacts or movements of those countries’ population, but it is still too early to tell if publishing location data will be useful in preventing coronavirus deaths during the COVID19 pandemic.
Country by Country
For example, countries that have implemented strict confinement guidelines for several weeks already have seen clear patterns of change in behavior. Italy’s report shows a 94% reduction in retail and recreation activity, along with an 87% drop in the use of transit stations. Sweden, a country that has, for one reason or another, decided not to enforce a mandatory lockdown, is experiencing only a 24% drop in retail and recreation, but it has seen a surprising 43% increase in park visitations.
Google’s Senior Vice President of Maps Jen Fitzpatrick, along with Google’s Chief Health Officer Karen DeSalvo, explains that the data from users is outlined to assist public health officials in understanding the effectiveness of local confinement measures. As she explained in a recent blog post, “…This information could help officials understand changes in essential trips that can shape recommendations on business hours or inform delivery service offerings.” She went on to state, “Similarly, persistent visits to transportation hubs might indicate the need to add additional buses or trains in order to allow people who need to travel room to spread out for social distancing. 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.”
Google officials ardently emphasize that the data to help governments is completely anonymous, which means that it can not be used to collect and track information from individual users. They have also stated that the data only includes information from users who have activated their Location History, which is an opt-in only setting not used by default.
“While we display a percentage point increase or decrease in visits, we do not share the absolute number of visits,” the article says. “To protect people’s privacy, no personally identifiable information, like an individual’s location, contacts or movement, is made available at any point.”
How Much is Too Much?
However, the collection of data from users poses a controversial question: At what point does it become too invasive? Many people support the initiative on the part of governments and tech companies to collect and interpret user location data in an effort to curb the growing number of coronavirus deaths during the COVID19 pandemic. But some countries, China mainly, has taken this effort to an unprecedented level with the use of AI and facial recognition technologies, by tracking the movements and interactions of anyone who tests positive.
The capabilities of China’s government-backed tech companies has truly become something the likes of which could only be found in futuristic science fiction thrillers, and it is of great concern to those who believe that this technology could be abused to consolidate control over China’s massive population.
Google has stated that they will only continue to publish user location data for as long as it is useful to individuals and public health officials in their combined efforts to tackle virus-related health concerns, and they will continue to update the reports based on government feedback. Whether governments will ask Google to publish user data that is of a more identifiable nature still remains to be seen. If the situation continues to worsen at an exponential rate, it may be the very users who demand that these kinds of measures be taken by the tech giant.