As the world works to battle COVID-19, stay-at-home orders are becoming more and more common. In many places, people are still able to travel, but they should only do so for essential needs and businesses. To help governments determine how stay-at-home orders are working, Google released anonymized location data anyone can see.
Stay-at-home orders only work if people, well, stay at home. As governments grapple with how best to encourage social distancing measures, more data can help determine what’s working and what isn’t working.
Google already tracks users’ locations anyways (unless you turn the feature off), so it’s in a prime position to provide that data. To that extent, it released anonymized reports today broken down by country, and in the United State’s case, by State and county. Download your area and you can see whether people are going to retail stores and restaurants less than usual, for instance. You can also see how much people are going to work and how much they’re staying at home.
In Ohio, where I live, I can see that retail and recreation visits are down 43%, but park usage is up a whopping 117%. That’s not too surprising; in this State, we’ve been under stay-at-home orders for weeks, and restaurants are open for take-out and delivery only. Parks are still open, however, and the Governor has encouraged using them while maintaining social distancing.
Google took pains to anonymize the data; all you get are stats, for instance (this type of activity is up or down), not movement or individual location. These are trends over time as well, taken from up to a few weeks ago and representing the last 72-hours. And it added artificial noise to the data to further anonymize it.
Hopefully, that walks the delicate balance of providing location data of a population without providing overly invading privacy. But if you’re concerned about Google tracking your movements, you can turn location tracking off. For now, more data means governments can make decisions more thoughtfully. And you can too, for that matter. Since anyone can access the data, you can check on how well your area is complying with stay-at-home orders, which may help you make decisions on how important your next trip is (or how risky).