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Google releases location data to show effectiveness of coronavirus lockdowns

The tech giant analysed data from billions of users’ phones in 131 countries

Location tracking

Google has published reports showing whether visits to public spaces and workplaces have dropped over the last month, as governments around the world advised citizens to stay at home and self-isolate in order to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The tech giant analysed location data from billions of users’ phones over 131 countries, making it the largest public dataset currently available. The report is designed to help health authorities evaluate whether citizens are complying with self-isolation advice and orders issued across the world.

Google’s analysis covers public transport use, as well as footfall in grocery stores and other broad categories of places, from mid-February until the end of March. It also compares the data with a five-week period earlier this year.

Google Health chief health officer Karen DeSalvo, MD, M.P.H. and Geo SVP Jen Fitzpatrick explained the use of Google’s “Community Mobility Reports” in a blog post:

“The reports use aggregated, anonymized data to chart movement trends over time by geography, across different high-level categories of places such as retail and recreation, groceries and pharmacies, parks, transit stations, workplaces, and residential,” they wrote. “We’ll show trends over several weeks, with the most recent information representing 48-to-72 hours prior.”

DeSalvo and Fitzpatrick also countered any possible privacy concerns:

“While we display a percentage point increase or decrease in visits, we do not share the absolute number of visits. To protect people’s privacy, no personally identifiable information, like an individual’s location, contacts or movement, is made available at any point.”

The data reveals that in the UK there has been a 85% decrease in mobility trends for retail and recreational places, including restaurants, cafes, shopping centres, museums, libraries, and cinemas. Public transport hubs had the second-largest decrease, with 75%, while workplaces experienced a 55% fall in attendance.

Google’s report also showed a 15% increase in users choosing to follow governmental advice and stay at home, based on mobility trends for places of residence.

Anyone can view Google’s “Community Mobility Reports” here. It's currently unclear how UK authorities might use the data.

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