Google has launched a new website that uses anonymous location data collected from users of Google products and services to show the level of social distancing taking place in various locations.
The COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports web site will show population data trends of six categories: Retail and recreation, grocery and pharmacy, parks, transit stations, workplaces, and residential. The data will track changes over the course of several weeks, and as recent as 48-to-72 hours prior, and will initially cover 131 countries as well as individual counties within certain states.
Google says the data will be collected in aggregate, rather than at an individual level, and it won’t show absolute numbers of people showing up at parks or grocery stores. The idea instead is to outline percentages, which highlight potential surges in attendance. For example, its first reports states that San Francisco County has seen a 72% drop in retail and recreation, a 55% decline in parks’ population, and a 21% increase in residential population between Feb. 16 and March 29.
For public health departments, this kind of data could be helpful in alerting them to the next potential COVID-19 hotspot. That’s particularly true when combined with other forms of data that are already routinely collected on a local, state and federal level, such as the symptoms that patients are complaining of in emergency rooms. It might also be useful in helping public health officials target specific regions with further messaging about the importance of staying six feet apart, or close parks where residents are routinely flouting the rules.
This kind of information could be particularly important as people in various countries start to return to school and work. In that case, public health officials can use the data to learn where the most congested areas are, and respond accordingly. “This information could help officials understand changes in essential trips that can shape recommendations on business hours or inform delivery service offerings,” the announcement states.
However, the effort could also renew privacy concerns over how Google collects information about users’ locations.
The new site says that it uses aggregated and anonymized information from the “Location History” setting in Google Maps and other services, which “is turned off by default.” However, Google’s location tracking settings have been a source of confusion over the years — in April 2019, CNBC’s Todd Haselton found that Google had been tracking his location for years without him realizing it, and explained how to turn tracking off. In October 2019, Australian officials accused Google of misleading consumers in 2018 and earlier about the settings necessary to turn off location tracking.
The latest efforts come as Google and its parent company Alphabet increasingly partner with government officials amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The Trump administration has partnered with Alphabet’s life sciences company Verily for a screening and testing website and it has created multiple landing pages for pandemic information and data insights. The global pandemic has caused policies to vary by state, without material uniformity, leading to officials learning increasingly on tech companies like Google.