Google has launched a new website that uses anonymous location data from users of Google products and services to show the level of social distancing in various places, CNBC reported.
The COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports website will show population data for six categories: Retail and recreation, grocery and pharmacy, parks, transit stations, workplaces, and residential. The data will track changes over the course of several weeks, and as recent as over the last 48-to-72 hours, and will initially cover 131 countries as well as individual counties within certain states.
The data will be collected in aggregate, rather than at an individual level, and will not show the absolute number of people appearing in parks or grocery stores. The idea instead is to outline percentages, which highlight potential surges in attendance.
For public health departments, such data may be useful in warning of the next potential COVID-19 access point. This is especially true in combination with other forms of data that are already regularly collected at the local, state, regional and federal levels.
Such information can be especially important as people in different countries begin to return to school and work.
However, these efforts may also raise confidentiality concerns regarding how Google collects user location information.
The new site says that it uses aggregated and anonymized information from the “Location History” setting in Google Maps and other services, which “is turned off by default.” By the way, Google’s location tracking settings have been a source of confusion over the years - in April 2019, CNBC’s Todd Haselton found that Google had been tracking his location for years without him realizing it, and explained how to turn tracking off. In October 2019, Australian officials accused Google of misleading consumers in 2018 and earlier about the settings necessary to turn off location tracking.
Recent efforts have been made because Google and its parent company Alphabet are increasingly collaborating with government officials in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.