As health officials seek to evaluate and optimize response strategies like social distancing, Google’s new COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports intends to provide insights into how policies like work-from-home and shelter-in-place, aimed at flattening the curve of the pandemic, are impacting peoples’ movement and behavior.
“We have heard from public health officials that this same type of aggregated, anonymized data could be helpful as they make critical decisions to combat COVID-19,” said two Google executives, Jen Fitzpatrick, SVP Geo, and Karen DeSalvo, Chief Health Officer at Google Health, in an April 3 announcement.
The tech giant said the reports would initially cover 131 countries and regions, and use aggregated and anonymized data.
Google insists the tool meets stringent privacy protections and the information it generates will contain no personally identifiable information.
“For these reports, we use differential privacy, which adds artificial noise to our datasets enabling high quality results without identifying any individual person,” the executives said in the announcement, adding that the data comes from users who have switched on the Location History setting on their devices, which is off by default. People who do not wish to have their data be used for this purpose can turn off the location feature and delete their Location History data.
The mobility reports will be broken down according to time and location and across categories of places like retail, recreation, groceries, pharmacies, parks, transit stations, workplaces, and residential areas.
For example, a March 29 report (pdf) covering all of the United States shows a 47 percent drop in retail and recreation activity and a 51 percent drop in transit stations compared to a pre-outbreak baseline. At the same time, it shows that residential areas saw a 12 percent uptick in activity, suggesting shelter-in-place policies are having an effect.
Still, despite data protection measures in effect, the tool feeds into the debate over privacy.
Mark Skilton, director of the Artificial Intelligence Innovation Network at Warwick Business School in the UK, told CBS that Google’s decision to use public data “raises a key conflict between the need for mass surveillance to effectively combat the spread of coronavirus and the issues of confidentiality, privacy, and consent concerning any data obtained.”
“COVID-19 is an emergency on such a huge scale that, if anonymity is managed appropriately, internet giants and social media platforms could play a responsible part in helping to build collective crowd intelligence for social good, rather than profit,” Skilton told the outlet.
On March 28, the Wall Street Journal reported that mobile advertising companies were sharing data with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as state and local governments, to supply officials with insights into the outbreak. Similarly aggregated and anonymized, the data intends to help officials respond more effectively.
Similarly, infectious disease researchers are using Facebook’s mobile location data to provide daily updates to U.S. cities and states evaluating the effectiveness of social distancing orders.