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Google Is Using Anonymized User Location Data to Report Movements During COVID-19 Pandemic


Google is sharing public reports of user movement and gatherings in countries around the world, to help health authorities create their strategies and make critical decisions to combat COVID-19 pandemic. This data is anonymized and sourced from Google Maps, from users who have Location History enabled in the app.

COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports 2

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As health authorities around the world scramble to create policies and strategies to 'flatten the curve' for coronavirus spread in countries around the world, Google has come up with COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports to provide health officials with insights on gatherings and movements. Google Maps is one of the most popular apps in the world that has the ability to store user location history, and this has given Google a chance to anonymously use it for reporting.

As global communities respond to COVID-19, we've heard from public health officials that the same type of aggregated, anonymized insights we use in products such as Google Maps could be helpful as they make critical decisions to combat COVID-19.

The report data is segregated by countries, cities, regions and counties, and divided into six categories each

  1. Retail & Recreation
  2. Grocery & Pharmacy
  3. Parks
  4. Transit stations
  5. Workplaces
  6. Residential

Each report shows a graph with mobility trends against a baseline value. As long as the value is in the negative for the first 5 categories, and keeps going lower, that is a good sign. The value for residential should keep going up, as it would show that people are following 'stay at home' instructions.

These Community Mobility Reports aim to provide insights into what has changed in response to policies aimed at combating COVID-19. The reports chart movement trends over time by geography, across different categories of places such as retail and recreation, groceries and pharmacies, parks, transit stations, workplaces, and residential.

Before you sharpen your pitchforks and shout about privacy, Google is not providing any data that can recognize any individual. Through the use of differential privacy, which is the practice of adding noise to datasets, Google is ensuring that reports are generated without the possibility of individual identification.

Google plans to add more countries, regions and languages over the coming weeks, and will be updating all reports regularly. The reporting will stop once COVID-19 spread comes under control.

The need of the hour is that people should stay at home to isolate themselves and prevent the spread of coronavirus. However, this is easier said than done. Nobody knew that giving people the opportunity to chill at home would not be something they would easily accept.