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Google’s anonymous location data to help determine social-distancing effectiveness

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Google has made available anonymised location data for millions of users in 131 countries to allow Governments and researchers to determine the effectiveness of lockdown protocols during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In recent weeks governments across the world have been implementing public health strategies, including social-distancing measures, to slow the rate of transmission.

Google’s data can be used to identify which businesses and locations are still crowded, despite the lockdown, and could help to inform policy decisions.

Its reports chart movement trends over time and can be compared to another five-week period earlier this year before the outbreak which Google has also made available as a control.

“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,” Google said in a statement.

The data has been gleaned from the location history setting on people’s smartphones but individuals will not be identifiable.

“These reports have been developed to be helpful while adhering to our stringent privacy protocols and policies,” Dr Karen DeSalvo, chief health officer for Google Health and Jen Fitzpatrick, senior vice president for Google Geo, wrote in a blog post.

Facebook has also been sharing location data as part of its nearly year-old Disease Prevention Maps program, which has also aided efforts to increase vaccination rates in Malawi and track cholera outbreaks in Mozambique.

The Covid-19 Mobility Data Network, a group of 40 health researchers from universities including Harvard, Princeton and Johns Hopkins, said that since mid-March its members have been sharing insights gleaned from the social media firm’s data with California, Massachusetts and New York City.

But chief executive Mark Zuckerberg told reporters last month that he would not consider sharing Facebook’s data directly with governments.

Like Google’s data set, Facebook has stripped theirs of identifying information, but researchers are provided insights like the average distance of trips users have taken in a city and the proportion of residents in each county that have stayed within their 600 square metre home “tiles”.

The data can show “if at first people stop moving but then begin to travel further once fatigue sets in”, said Caroline Buckee, an epidemiologist at Harvard’s School of Public Health who is among those leading the network.

Earlier this week, Ireland's health service said it would soon launch a voluntary app that will let it track people’s movements and let others know if they have been in contact with someone infected with the coronavirus.

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