Tracking the Spread of COVID-19 Using Location Data

Michelle Lawrence Picture

by Michelle Lawrence | Last Updated: May 6, 2020

Social distancing has been our way of life for almost two months now and no one honestly knows how much longer we’re really going to need to stay at least six feet apart. Health officials are trying to provide some insight on social distancing, its effectiveness, and any potential changes we can make to it in the future by collecting data, however, the way the data is collected is somewhat controversial. We all believe our phones are listening to us, but did you know that they’re capable of tracking our location too?

Health officials are using mobile location data to understand the spread of COVID-19 but this has led to some understandable concern surrounding the privacy of individuals due to the source of the data. Let’s take a deeper look into how companies are using location data to track the spread of COVID-19.

Google and Apple Rise to the Occasion  

Google and Apple have recently joined the fight to stop the spread of COVID-19 through data collection. Google is utilizing its Google Maps to determine how mobile traffic has changed at places of retail, transportation, groceries, etc. With this data, Google is hoping to determine if people are abiding by social distancing guidelines. Apple is also employing its web mapping service to learn more about mobility trends by counting the number of requests for directions on Apple Maps.

In addition to their individual efforts, Apple and Google have announced a partnership by developing a contact-tracing tool that may slow the spread of the virus. The first phase of the solution said to be rolled out in mid-May, is an exposure notification API that uses Bluetooth to collect information surrounding COVID-19. Users can download official native mobile apps from public health officials that will be able to collect location data utilizing beacon technology. If a user has been tested positive for COVID-19, they can input that information through the app; if another user’s phone has registered coming into contact with this individual, then they will be notified.

Phase two of the project is strengthening the API so individuals won’t have to download the mobile app, they’ll just have to update their operating system on their smartphones. If the Bluetooth beacon recognizes contact with an individual with a positive diagnosis, they will be then prompted to download the app to receive more information.

Let’s Not Forget About Facebook 

Facebook also wants a piece of the action when it comes to slowing the spread of the virus. The social media giant is entrusting the use of one of its projects, Data for Good, to generate population maps based on Facebook’s data. The types of maps the platform can display include network coverage, the population density of older individuals, and movement. This helps health officials determine vulnerable areas and how they’ll distribute information.

Interestingly enough, Facebook can also track something it calls a “social connectedness index”, which basically means how likely two people in an area are to become Facebook friends. Now, you may not think this matters, but Facebook proclaimed areas with a stronger social tie may recover faster than its counterparts.

Privacy Concerns 

If your mind went immediately to the Cambridge Analytica scandal after reading these solutions, don’t worry, you’re not alone. The tech giants proclaim that protecting their users’ privacy is their number one priority through precautions such as aggregated data and including an option for users to opt-out at any time. Google and Apple have also come forward to say if a person has reported a positive diagnosis, their identity will not be shared with people he or she may have come into contact with.

And while Mark Zuckerburg has stated he will not be sharing the data with government officials, not all of the tech giants have the same view. In the FAQ section regarding this software, a question included is, “Will the government have access to this information?” Google and Apple never come out to explicitly say no and actually reiterate the point of this project is to provide health officials with this data.

Is There Anything Else? 

Like any experiment, issues of accuracy will always arise. Imagine if you had Google and Apple’s contact-trading app right now, how likely are you to download it, let alone self-report? For many, the privacy concerns presented with this technology may be too much of a concern, thus making the accuracy of the data questionable.

Smartphone ownership also presents an issue. According to Pew Research Center, only about 81 percent of people own a smartphone. And let’s think about one of the groups who are most vulnerable to the virus; elderly. This group has lower rates of smartphone ownership, therefore fragmenting the data even further. But why does this matter? With potential low rates of adoption with the contact-tracing app with these more vulnerable demographic groups, the number of positive diagnoses may be underreported leading to a false sense of security.

With all of that being said, I am optimistic that there’s a way we can potentially track if we’ve come into contact with an individual with a positive diagnosis. Is it perfect? No. Is it a start? Yes. Hopefully, as developers continue to work on these projects, we’ll have a better idea of how to reduce the spread of the virus.

If you’re interested in other COVID-19 related articles, be sure to check out this blog where we cover the importance of contactless payment during this time.

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