Google mobilizes location tracking data to help public health experts monitor COVID-19 spread

The anonymized, aggregated GPS data is collected from mobile devices that have opted into location-tracking services.
By Dave Muoio
03:13 pm
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Google is taking its coronavirus support efforts one step further with the launch of its COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports web tool late last week.

Similar to the way Google Maps displays whether certain businesses or public places are busy at certain times of day, the resource aggregates anonymized location tracking data from mobile devices to identify large-scale behavior trends.

The end results are downloadable Community Mobility Reports that highlight movement-trend differences at country, state, county or regional levels. These generally reflect mobility data from two or three days prior, according to the company, and never display absolute visit numbers.

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Instead, users are shown a percentage change in visit volume for location types – for instance, a 56% decline in mobility trends for Massachusetts parks from the February 16 reporting baseline to the most recent data collection date of March 29.

Google wrote in a blog post announcing the tool that these reports cover 131 countries and regions so far, and will be adding more regions "in the coming weeks." Further, the tech company also said that it is collaborating with COVID-19 epidemiologists to better flesh out another human mobility dataset it had released roughly half a year ago.

WHY IT MATTERS

Google wrote in its blog post that the reports are intended to support public health officials and other major decision-makers as they work to limit COVID-19's spread.

"For example, 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," the company wrote. "Ultimately, understanding not only whether people are traveling, but also trends in destinations, can help officials design guidance to protect public health and essential needs of communities."

Still, the use of smartphone GPS data for any level of surveillance is certain to raise red flags among the privacy minded. Google stressed in its blog post that location-history tracking is an optional opt-in setting for its device users, and that the company will be following its usual procedures of anonymizing and adding artificial noise to its datasets.

Several countries have already begun looking into, or have rolled out, mobile phone-based efforts to track the spread of coronavirus among their citizenry. And several public health figures have come out in favor of stronger disease surveillance in the U.S. as well. Take, for instance, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who highlighted contact-tracing and home-isolation enforcement "using technology such as GPS tracking on cellphone apps" as potential components of a robust coronavirus response.

THE LARGER TREND

Google's parent company Alphabet has been focusing a fair amount of its resources over the past few weeks on COVID-19 initiatives, with efforts ranging to the promotion of World Health Organization educational initiatives across its platforms to the release of open-source research from its artificial intelligence subsidiary DeepMind.

Perhaps its highest profile project so far has been the launch of Verily's triage website and mobile COVID-19 testing sites. Heavily promoted by President Donald Trump during an address to the country, the effort began as a fairly limited pilot that has steadily expanded over the passing weeks.

Other tech giants have also looked to make an impact on the global pandemic as well, whether that be through misinformation-focused collaborations with the U.K.'s NHS or a collective call for machine learning research expertise. Just today, Facebook rolled out three new COVID-19 health-tracking maps through its Data for Good program.

 

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