Google is giving the world a clearer glimpse of exactly how much it knows about people everywhere — using the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to repackage its persistent tracking of where users go and what they do as a public good in the midst of a pandemic.
In a blog post today the tech giant announced the publication of what it’s branding ‘COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports‘. Aka an in-house analysis of the much more granular location data, it maps and tracks to fuel its ad-targeting, product development and wider commercial strategy to showcase aggregated changes in population movements around the world.
The coronavirus pandemic has generated a worldwide scramble for tools and data to inform government responses. In the EU, for example, the European Commission has been leaning on telcos to hand over anonymized and aggregated location data to model the spread of COVID-19.
Google’s data dump looks intended to dangle a similar idea of public policy utility while providing an eyeball-grabbing public snapshot of mobility shifts via data pulled off of its global user-base.
In terms of actual utility for policymakers, Google’s suggestions are pretty vague. The reports could help government and public health officials “understand changes in essential trips that can shape recommendations on business hours or inform delivery service offerings”, it writes.
“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,” it goes on. “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.”
The location data Google is making public is similarly fuzzy — to avoid inviting a privacy storm — with the company writing it’s using “the same world-class anonymization technology that we use in our products every day”, as it puts it.
“For these reports, we use differential privacy, which adds artificial noise to our datasets enabling high-quality results without identifying any individual person,” Google writes. “The insights are created with aggregated, anonymized sets of data from users who have turned on the Location History setting, which is off by default.”
“In Google Maps, we use aggregated, anonymized data showing how busy certain types of places are—helping identify when a local business tends to be the most crowded. 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,” it adds, tacitly linking an existing offering in Google Maps to a coronavirus-busting cause.
The reports consist of per country, or per state, downloads (with 131 countries covered initially), further broken down into regions/counties — with Google offering an analysis of how community mobility has changed vs a baseline average before COVID-19 arrived to change everything.
So, for example, a March 29 report for the whole of the US shows a 47 percent drop in retail and recreation activity vs the pre-CV period; a 22% drop in grocery & pharmacy; and a 19% drop in visits to parks and beaches, per Google’s data.
While the same data report for California shows a considerably greater drop in the latter (down 38% compared to the regional baseline); and slightly bigger decreases in both retail and recreation activity (down 50%) and grocery & pharmacy (-24%).
Google says it’s using “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”. The trends are displayed over several weeks, with the most recent information representing 48-to-72 hours prior, it adds.
The company says it’s not publishing the “absolute number of visits” as a privacy step, adding: “To protect people’s privacy, no personally identifiable information, like an individual’s location, contacts or movement, is made available at any point.”
Google’s location mobility report for Italy, which remains the European country hardest hit by the virus, illustrates the extent of the change from lockdown measures applied to the population — with retail & recreation dropping 94% vs Google’s baseline; grocery & pharmacy down 85%; and a 90% drop in trips to parks and beaches.
The same report shows an 87% drop in activity at transit stations; a 63% drop in activity at workplaces; and an increase of almost a quarter (24%) of activity in residential locations — as many Italians stay at home, instead of commuting to work.
It’s a similar story in Spain — another country hard-hit by COVID-19. Though Google’s data for France suggest instructions to stay-at-home may not be being quite as keenly observed by its users there, with only an 18% increase in activity at residential locations and a 56% drop in activity at workplaces. (Perhaps because the pandemic has so far had a less severe impact on France, although numbers of confirmed cases and deaths continue to rise across the region.)
While policymakers have been scrambling for data and tools to inform their responses to COVID-19, privacy experts and civil liberties campaigners have rushed to voice concerns about the impacts of such data-fuelled efforts on individual rights, while also querying the wider utility of some of this tracking.