What you need to know
- Google is creating what it calls COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports, providing data into how movement trends have changed in response to the pandemic.
- The initial reports will cover over 131 countries, with additional countries being added as time goes by.
- Users can opt-out by disabling location history tracking in their Google account.
Google continues to contribute to coronavirus response efforts by leveraging some of its most honed tools — tracking and data collection. The company will now be using its technology to deliver new "COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports." These reports will show just how responsive the populace is to measures aimed at "flattening the curve" by quantifying how often people move around. It'll be released globally in over 131 countries and regions at the moment, with Google working in getting data down to the regional level in the coming weeks.
Google explained the process on Friday:
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. 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. To protect people's privacy, no personally identifiable information, like an individual's location, contacts or movement, is made available at any point.
It's worth noting that Google already does this for businesses regularly, allowing users to see how busy a store is or what its peak times are to plan their movements via Google Maps. It's certainly not heartening for people concerned about their privacy, but that doesn't mean you're powerless to do anything about it.
"The Community Mobility Reports are powered by the same world-class anonymization technology that we use in our products every day. For these reports, we use differential privacy, which adds artificial noise to our datasets enabling high quality results without identifying any individual person," Google added. "Users who have Location History turned on can choose to turn the setting off at any time from their Google Account, and can always delete Location History data directly from their Timeline."
Google isn't the only company to generate such data reports. Reuters notes that Facebook is providing location data to researchers as they measure the effectiveness of social distancing orders. The same concerns regarding user privacy apply here, with the concerns being addressed by "aggregating the data several times over and funneling it through academics."
The data gleaned from both firms will be useful to state bodies as they work to determine whether social distancing orders should be rolled back or intensified when tracked with hospitalization data.