Google’s data shines light on whether coronavirus lockdowns worldwide are working

Platform News: Google

As reported yesterday, Google has published charts showing how the coronavirus has brought hard-hit Italy to a complete standstill, led to runs on grocery stores around the world and prompted a massive drop in going-out between Mardi Gras and St Patrick’s Day. 

The analysis of location data from billions of Google users’ phones is the largest public data set available to help health authorities assess if people are abiding with shelter-in-place and similar orders issued across the world to rein in the virus.

The company released reports for some 131 countries with charts that compare traffic from the 16th of February to March the 29th to retail and recreational venues, train and bus stations, grocery stores and workplaces with a five-week period earlier this year.

Google said it published the reports to avoid any confusion about what it was providing to authorities, given the global debate that has emerged about balancing privacy-invasive location tracking with the need to prevent further outbreaks.

The data often correlated with the severity of outbreaks and the harshness and breadth of orders imposed by governments.

Click here to view our country breakdown of the data. 

Related Article:
Bluetooth phone apps for tracking coronavirus show modest early results

The data also underscore some challenges authorities have faced in keeping people apart. Grocery store visits surged in Singapore, the UK and elsewhere as travel restrictions were set to go into place. Visits to parks spiked in March in some San Francisco Bay Area counties under lockdown in California, forcing them to make the sites off limits.

The data also underscores how the mood of people around the world has shifted. In New Orleans, during its annual Mardi Gras celebrations Feb.16-25, which has with hindsight been criticised for helping spread the virus, there were off-the-chart increases in traffic to transit stations, parks and businesses.

But three weeks later in Dublin, heart of St. Patrick’s holiday celebrations, traffic was down at retail and recreational venues as the country ordered big events cancelled.

Within countries, there were wide gaps in behaviour by region. California, which was the first in the United States with a statewide lockdown, cut visits to retail establishments and recreational locations by half. In New York state, the slide in such visits was gradual as officials waited to impose strict curbs but they eventually fell by some 62%. By contrast, Arkansas, one of the few states without a sweeping lockdown, had the smallest decline at just 29%.

Related Article:
Google's Starline shows promise and perils of 3D chats

The coronavirus has infected more than 1 million people globally.

There were no reports for China and Iran, where Google services are blocked.

BALANCING PRIVACY

Data in Google’s reports come from users who enabled Google’s “Location History” feature on their devices. The company said it adopted technical measures to ensure that no individual could be identified through the new reports.

“These reports have been developed to be helpful while adhering to our stringent privacy protocols and policies,” Dr. Karen DeSalvo, chief health officer for Google Health and Jen Fitzpatrick, senior vice president for Google Geo, wrote in a blog post.

China, Singapore, South Korea and other countries have asked residents to use apps and other technology to track their compliance with quarantines, but privacy activists argue such measures can compromise individual liberties.

Infectious disease specialists have said analysing travel across groups by age, income and other demographics could help shape public service announcements.

Google, which infers demographics from users’ internet use as well as some data given when signing up to Google services, said it was not reporting demographic information. The company said, though, it was open to including additional information and countries in follow-up reports.

Related Article:
Spain's lower house to draft new 3% digital tax on internet giants

Google said consultations with officials in the US and the World Health Organisation helped inform the data shared.

The company declined to comment on whether it has received any legal requests to share more detailed data to help with efforts to tackle the pandemic.

Facebook, which like Google has billions of users, has shared location data with non-governmental researchers that are producing similar reports for authorities in several countries. But the social media giant has not publicly published any of its findings.

The team at Platform Executive hope you have enjoyed the ‘Google’s data shines light on whether coronavirus lockdowns worldwide are working‘ article. Automatic translation from English to a growing list of languages via Google AI Cloud Translation. Initial reporting via our official content partners at Thomson Reuters. Reporting by Paresh Dave; Additional reporting by Douglas Busvine in Berlin and Jonathan Weber, Miyoung Kim and Sayantani Ghosh in Singapore Editing by Edwina Gibbs. Comment by Rob Phillips.

Share this Article