Google COVID-19 Mobility Reports Reveal Stark Changes in Activity

Location-based information shines a light on our altered communities

Virtually everyone now agrees the key to beating the COVID-19 pandemic is adhering to Stay at Home and Social Distancing measures. Google’s reports could help connect adherence to those measures with real-world results.

lone shopper
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The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed societies in ways few could’ve imagined a month ago. Countries and local communities around the world have been ordered to stay apart, stay at home, and travel only when absolutely necessary. Now, the fruits of those orders are visible in stark relief in Google’s new COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports.

They know where you go: If you’ve ever gotten a one of Google’s Monthly Maps Timeline reports, you know that if you use Google services and opt-in, the platform can track your movements with startling precision. Google has that data for millions of people all around the world. The new Community Mobility Reports show changes in movement data for 131 countries.

Wait, are they tracking me? Google anonymizes all this data and uses differential privacy to add additional noise to the data to ensure that the information reveals nothing about you.

What the data shows: The Community Mobility Reports, which you can view via a series of downloadable PDF files, reveals, for instance, that between February 16 and March 29, movement to retail and recreation locations in New York dropped 62%, while park activity dropped 47%. Not surprisingly, travel to grocery stores and pharmacies dropped a somewhat lower 32%. In California, movement to retail and recreation dropped 50%, and Grocery and Pharmacy movement dropped 24% over that period. California and New York are two COVID-19 hot spots.

California reports
Google's California aggregate mobility report.  Google

What the data means: Google hopes this data can help officials make decisions about how their stay at home and shelter in place orders are working and how they might adjust them to address persistent travel needs.

In a blog post on the report Google wrote, “This information could help officials understand changes in essential trips that can shape recommendations on business hours or inform delivery service offerings. Similarly, persistent visits to transportation hubs might indicate the need to add additional buses or trains in order to allow people who need to travel room to spread out for social distancing.”

More to come: Google plans to add more countries and regional information to assist officials and healthcare professionals as they battle the COVID-19 pandemic at a local level.

Bottom Line: As the world deals with this unprecedented pandemic, it’s clear that data and information can play a role in supporting officials and healthcare professionals fighting the virus. Privacy concerns are valid, but nothing in the current reports indicates anything that could be tied to an individual. The larger question is if more Google users will opt into location data sharing to assist in future reports.

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