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Google Tracking Public Movements Using Smartphones During COVID-19

David Paul

,

Google

The company has released data showing mobility trends of citizens in areas such as parks and residential spaces to show movement patterns during the coronavirus lockdown.

Tech giant Google has released a mobility report revealing changes in the movement habits of people during the coronavirus lockdown through smartphone tracking data.

Google would typically collect the data to help customers plan visits to businesses and for businesses to see customer trends, revealing information including popular times, live visit information, waiting times and typical visit duration.

But as work from home, shelter in place, and other policies aimed at flattening the curve of the pandemic remain in place, the data reveals a huge changes in public movement.

Between early March until the end of the month, areas where you would find retail outlets and recreation have dropped by 85% across the UK, while data on movement in parks shows a drop of 52%.

British train stations have seen a 75% drop, while mobility trends for residential areas have increased by 15% over the same period.

The data also shows movements trends for individual parts of the UK, with data from Edinburgh showing an 86% drop in movement in retail and recreation areas, and a 18% increase in movement in residential areas.

Commenting on the data, Jen Fitzpatrick SVP, Geo at Google, commented: “The reports use aggregated, anonymised 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.

“We’ll show trends over several weeks, with the most recent information representing 48-to-72 hours prior. While we display a percentage point increase or decrease in visits, we do not share the absolute number of visits.”

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The reports do not just cover the UK; Google is hoping to release similar data worldwide.

“We will release these reports globally, initially covering 131 countries and regions. Given the urgent need for this information, where possible we will also provide insights at the regional level.

“In the coming weeks, we will work to add additional countries and regions to ensure these reports remain helpful to public health officials across the globe looking to protect people from the spread of COVID-19.”

Google hopes that the reports will help public health officials to manage the spread of the virus such as using the information to understand changes in essential trips that can shape recommendations on business hours or inform delivery services.

There been concern surrounding the privacy of location data being used during the spread of COVID-19. 100 organisations recently raised concerns about the use of big data and surveillance technologies to track and monitor populations during the COVID-19 pandemic as it could allow countries to use the information to produce new laws which permanently restrict civil liberties.

Google commented: “To protect people’s privacy, no personally identifiable information, like an individual’s location, contacts or movement, is made available at any point.”

David Paul

Staff Writer, DIGIT

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