Google Is Tracking People's Movements in Their Communities During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Google has released preliminary reports showing movements within communities across the world during the COVID-19 virus pandemic.

According to the Community Mobility Report for the U.S., as of March 29, 2020, the movement to retail and recreation areas has decreased by 47 percent (compared to the baseline). This includes places like restaurants, cafes, shopping centers, theme parks, museums, libraries and movie theaters.

Unsurprisingly, the movement to residential areas has gone up by 12 percent during the pandemic.

In New York, which currently has the highest number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country, as illustrated in the graphic below by Statista, the movement to retail and recreational places has decreased by 47 percent, while the movement to residential has increased by 16 percent.

This infographic shows the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases by state.
This infographic shows the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases by state.

The community mobility report tracks trends in where people are, using location history from users' phones. It currently has data from 131 countries worldwide, drilling down into regions where deemed necessary such as states in the U.S. The reports review what has changed during the outbreak in terms of working from home, shelter-in-place and other policies aimed at flattening the curve.

According to a blog post published today by Jen Fitzpatrick, senior vice president of Geo, and Karen DeSalvo, MD, M.P.H., chief health officer, Google Health, the anonymized data from the Google Community Mobility reports are to be used to help inform public health policy officials making critical decisions during the pandemic.

Similar to Google Maps, the teams behind the community mobility reports use "aggregated and anonymized data" which show how busy certain types of places are. Just like a local business might use the information to identify its most crowded periods, public health officials have said the same type of data could be helpful to make critical decisions to combat COVID-19.

A screenshot example of the Community Mobility Report for Louisiana state. Google

As well as informing public health policy, Google also hopes that the data could be used to help make decisions about how to manage the COVID-19 pandemic.

The information could help officials understand changes in essential trips that Americans need to make, which in turn will help shape recommendations on business hours or inform delivery service offerings.

It can also indicate the need to add additional buses or train services in order to allow people who need to travel room to spread out for social distancing.

"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 blog post explains.

The data collected by Google charts movement trends over time by geography, across different high-level categories of places, including retail and recreation, groceries and pharmacies, parks, transit stations, workplaces, and residential, according to Google's blog post. While it does not share the absolute number of visits to a place, the reports do display a percentage point increase or decrease in visits.

An example of how to use the Community Mobility Report landing page. Google

According to Google, no personally identifiable information—such as a particular individual's location, contacts or movement—is made available in order to protect people's privacy. The insights seen in the reports are created using data from users who have turned on the Location History setting on their devices. If a user has the feature turned on, they can turn it off at any time from their Google Account as well as delete the Location History data directly from their Timeline.

At the time of reporting, the U.S. had 245,573 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University. Of these, 6,058 deaths have been confirmed with 9,228 recorded recoveries.

Globally, the number of cases has surpassed 1 million, with 53,179 confirmed deaths and 212,072 recoveries, as shown in the graphic below provided by Statista.

The graph shows the number of coronavirus cases confirmed worldwide.
The graph shows the number of coronavirus cases confirmed worldwide.

World Health Organization advice for avoiding spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Hygiene advice

  • Clean hands frequently with soap and water, or alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Wash hands after coughing or sneezing; when caring for the sick; before, during and after food preparation; before eating; after using the toilet; when hands are visibly dirty; and after handling animals or waste.
  • Maintain at least 1 meter (3 feet) distance from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your hands, nose and mouth. Do not spit in public.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or bent elbow when coughing or sneezing. Discard the tissue immediately and clean your hands.

Medical advice

  • Avoid close contact with others if you have any symptoms.
  • Stay at home if you feel unwell, even with mild symptoms such as headache and runny nose, to avoid potential spread of the disease to medical facilities and other people.
  • If you develop serious symptoms (fever, cough, difficulty breathing) seek medical care early and contact local health authorities in advance.
  • Note any recent contact with others and travel details to provide to authorities who can trace and prevent spread of the disease.
  • Stay up to date on COVID-19 developments issued by health authorities and follow their guidance.

Mask and glove usage

  • Healthy individuals only need to wear a mask if taking care of a sick person.
  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Masks are effective when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning.
  • Do not touch the mask while wearing it. Clean hands if you touch the mask.
  • Learn how to properly put on, remove and dispose of masks. Clean hands after disposing of the mask.
  • Do not reuse single-use masks.
  • Regularly washing bare hands is more effective against catching COVID-19 than wearing rubber gloves.
  • The COVID-19 virus can still be picked up on rubber gloves and transmitted by touching your face.