Science | April 4, 2020 5:17 pm

Google Unveils Tool to Track Coronavirus-Related Mobility

A new tool collects location information and is designed as a public health resource

Google's location tracking services are proving useful for keeping track of people on the move during an epidemic.
Cec~commonswiki/Creative Commons

Since the beginning of the year, various governments — both local and national — have restricted people’s movement in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus. But it’s not always easy to get a sense of the big picture regarding whether or not this is working. The Chinese government has made use of relatively extensive surveillance technology — but it’s unclear whether or not that could be applied on a global scale, or whether residents of many countries would balk at the invasion of privacy.

There is one global resource of location data that is proving useful in these times, and it comes from a tech giant. That would be Google — and the source of the data are people who have opted to share their location history with the tech company. At The Verge, Casey Newton reports on new data that Google has released, which offers a number of insights into how distinctive populations are responding to the crisis.

Google’s reports also break out destinations by type, allowing a relatively granular level of data to be searched:

A sample report viewed by The Verge for California, where a shelter in place order has been in effect since March 19th, showed steep declines to retail and recreation locations and transit stations, with a moderate uptick in time spent at home.

The Community Mobility Reports page notes that “[n]o personally identifiable information, such as an individual’s location, contacts or movement, will be made available at any point.” It’s an interesting — and, hopefully, useful — resource to help fight the spread of the coronavirus, and to figure out what steps to take next.

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