Google hopes to help public health officials with new mobility data

The company's Community Mobility Reports detail trends in travel to places like grocery stores and parks

Google Community Mobility Reports

Google has released ‘Community Mobility Reports‘ to help public health officials with insights into how people responded to work from home, shelter in place and other orders and policies related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The search giant published an early release of its COVID-19 Community Mobility Report on April 3rd. The reports use aggregated, anonymized data to chart movement trends over time and by geography. Further, the reports sort the data into high-level categories like ‘retail’ and ‘parks.’

In a blog post, Google noted that it used similar data in Google Maps for a feature that shows how busy certain locations are. For example, if you’re planning to go to a restaurant, you can look it up on Maps and see when it’s busiest and plan to go at a different time. The search giant says it heard from public health officials that the same type of data could be helpful when it comes to making decisions to combat COVID-19.

Google says it will show trends over several weeks, with the most recent information representing about 48 to 72 hours prior. For each category, the search giant displays a percentage increase or decrease in visits but doesn’t show an absolute number of visits. Further, the company says it doesn’t include any identifiable information, such as an individual’s location, contacts or movement.

The reports will be available globally and cover 131 countries and regions. That includes Canada at a national level, as well as at a provincial level.

The data could help public health officials make decisions to manage the pandemic

Google’s blog post outlines how the company hopes the data can help public health officials:

“For example, this information could help officials understand changes in essential trips that can shape recommendations on business hours or inform delivery service offerings. 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. 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.”

In Canada, that kind of data could prove incredibly helpful. Toronto, for example, has continued to struggle with overcrowding on TTC buses despite the need for physical distancing.

Further, Toronto Mayor John Tory already raised the idea of using cell phone data from carriers to help curb the spread of COVID-19 in the city. After some confusion over Tory’s comments and whether the city had gone forward with data collection, the city clarified Tory merely raised the idea and that it would not be executed.

It’s possible data from Google’s Community Mobility Reports could stand-in for the cellphone location data collection that Tory suggested.

Further, the data could bring some relief to Canadians worried about whether people in their area are following public health guidelines. Over the last few days, both the Ontario provincial government and the federal government have been petitioned to release modelling data to show how bad the COVID-19 pandemic could get in Canada. Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced plans to release that data on April 3rd.

Google says the reports adhere to its ‘stringent privacy protocols’

Finally, the Community Mobility Reports page details how Google is protecting people’s privacy. Again, the company states it hasn’t released any personally identifiable information such as an individual’s location, contacts or movement, nor will that information be made available ay any point.

Additionally, the insights in the reports come from aggregated, anonymized data collected from users who have turned on the ‘Location History’ setting. Google notes that the setting is off by default. You can check if you have Location History turned on by navigating to your Google Account’s ‘Activity controls’ page (or by clicking this link).

Users can turn off Location History at any time and delete data from their Timeline.

You can view Google’s Privacy Policy here to learn more about how the company uses your data.

Those interested in viewing the Community Mobility Reports can find them here. Google says the reports will be available for as long as public health officials find them useful in fighting COVID-19.

Source: Google