For a few years Google has been aggregating and analysing location data through our smartphones. This means they can do helpful things like diverting traffic away from congestion and letting people know how busy shops are before they start their journeys.

You may have seen the ‘popular times’ feature in Google Maps? This compares average foot traffic in major locations to the live traffic picked up from people actually in those places.

Google live traffic

Apparently the data is only collected from people who have turned on their location history and it’s all anonymised.

Well now Google has launched a new tool called COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports. They’ve taken this aggregated location data and smushed them into a bunch of well presented pdf reports showing foot traffic nation by nation, split further by region.

These reports show the upward or downward trends of people visiting six broad types of places:

  • Retail and recreational spaces like restaurants, shopping centres and movie theaters
  • Grocery and pharmacy
  • Parks, beaches, marinas
  • Transit stations such as subways, bus and train stations
  • Workplaces
  • Residential

Here’s a sample from the latest report for the UK at the time of writing:

Trends of UK footfall according to Google

Today Google explained in a blog post that they’re making this data available for “public health officials, civil society groups, local governments and the community at large” to “help people and communities stay healthy and safe.”

So what can we glean?

  1. For us in the UK, businesses in the grocery and pharmacy category were 24% busier before the lockdown. That’s panic buying for you. It’s no wonder that hand sanitiser was suddenly worth its weight in gold.
  2. At the end of both the last two weeks the number of people visiting places of work rose and fewer people were home, with about a 10% change last week. Does anyone have any idea why this may be? Are people seriously getting so bored at home they’re that desperate to go to work on a Friday?

We can also take a much bigger picture look at the trends by comparing how different countries are responding to the virus.

If we rank the hardest hit countries according to reported cases per 50k people [source] we can then plot that data next to that country’s percentage drop in visitors to public places (as an average of the first five categories) vs the percentage rise in time spent at home. This is what we then get:

National response to COVID-19

Now, don’t take me too seriously because I’m no statistician by training, but it looks to me that compared to other countries the behaviour of the UK, along with France, puts us in good stead, so long as our hospitals can keep up.

Now as the UK’s medical director Professor Stephen Powis said we’ll only manage to keep deaths in the UK down to 20,000 if every citizen plays their part by staying home. Even then we’re in for a rough ride and 20,000 deaths by coronavirus is still a tragedy. Plus, other nations doing worse than us is no cause for celebration.

But still, it shows we can pull together.

Now I must attach a few caveats to my conclusions:

  • What’s revealed is the changes to normal habits not the baseline norms that probably vary between nations;
  • It doesn’t show how quickly countries are responding to the rise of the COVID-19 threat nor the acceleration of the spread of the virus, just an average since 15th February;
  • All the foot traffic trends cover from 15th February 2020 until now, but the national infections data covers a wider time period. Some nations have had the infection for longer than others;
  • Only reported cases will make it into the stats, potentially making countries with aggressive testing look worse in comparison to other countries than is fair;
  • Some small nations like Iceland, Andorra, San Marino and Monaco have been hammered by the virus (per capita relative to other nations) but Google doesn’t have enough location data to produce traffic trend reports for them

I have to mention Facebook too – just yesterday Reuters reported they were making a wealth of location data available to pandemic researchers at universities across the US.

As the data that mega corporations harvest from the public grows, so does their influence, and as Spiderman’s uncle Ben famously told us: “with great power comes great responsibility.” These companies have an increasing responsibility to use their expertise transparently and for the genuine wellbeing of the public, so these moves are good to see.

Google Is Tracking Your Phone’s Location to Fight Coronavirus 1

So it’s great to see big data providing wins for the little people as data companies like Google and Facebook open up their stats for public use.

Stay cool and stay sensible my friends.

And God bless the NHS 👏

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Author: Aidan Ashby

Aidan is a web and branding designer living in Bristol, UK. He’s a cautious optimist and is loathe to discuss himself in the third person. He loves pancakes and has a perpetual desire to just be sat in the woods with his feet up in front of a bonfire.

Connect with Aidan on LinkedIn.


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