Google is releasing aggregated, anonymized data from Google Maps showing people’s movements 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. Data is collected from billions of Android and iPhones using Google services and are published on a new website called COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports.
The reports, which contain data from two to three days earlier, are broken down by country and then by region. They intend to spot trends in how people are behaving and responding to social distancing policies, by showing what has changed in response to work from home, shelter in place, and other policies aimed at flattening the curve of this pandemic. The reports provide insights into the footfall recorded for some places such as retail and grocery stores, pharmacies, parks, workplaces and more.
On their blog post, Google says:
"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. [...] We will release these reports globally, initially covering 131 countries and regions. Given the urgent need for this information, where possible we will also provide insights at the regional level. In the coming weeks, we will work to add additional countries and regions to ensure these reports remain helpful to public health officials across the globe looking to protect people from the spread of COVID-19."
This is not really a new technology as Google has used it for years in order to indicate the busiest time of retails and traffic on Google Map for example. However, this is the first time that they provide a synthetic report by country.
By comparing Italy and Germany, we observe that the lockdown seems strictly enforced in Italy (-90% in the parks) while logically the fall is less abrupt in Germany where confinement conditions are less strict, and therefore the decrease is much less.
According to Mark Skilton (reported by CNN), director of the Artificial Intelligence Innovation Network at Warwick Business School in the UK, Google's decision to use public data "raises a key conflict between the need for mass surveillance to effectively combat the spread of coronavirus and the issues of confidentiality, privacy, and consent concerning any data obtained."
Google said that the findings 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's services. Users who have Location History turned on can choose to turn the setting off at any time from their Google Account, and can always delete Location History data directly from their Timeline.
It added that it would not release information that could be used to identify its users, such as individual location or contacts.