Google's Mobility Reports Show If Your Community Is Staying at Home

As the world strives to combat COVID-19, orders for home stays are becoming more common. In many places, people can still travel, but they should only do so for basic needs and businesses. To help governments determine how home stay orders work, Google released anonymized location data everyone can see.

Home orders only work if people, well, stay at home. As governments seek to best encourage social distancing, more data can help determine what is working and what is not.

Google already tracks user locations anyway (unless you disable the functionality), it is therefore in a privileged position to provide this data. To that extent, it released anonymized reports today, broken down by country and, in the case of the United States, by state and county. Download your area and you can see if people are going to retail stores and restaurants less than usual, for example. You can also see how many people are going to work and how many are staying at home.

In Ohio, where I live, I see that retail and leisure visits have dropped by 43%, but park use has increased by 117%. It is not too surprising; in this state, we have had home orders for weeks, and restaurants are open for take out and delivery only. The parks are still open, however, and the Governor has encouraged their use while maintaining social distance.

Google took care to anonymize the data; all you get is statistics, for example (this type of activity is going up or down), no movement or individual location. These are also trends over time, taken a few weeks ago and representing the last 72 hours. And he added artificial noise to the data to further anonymize it.

Hopefully this works out the delicate balance of providing location data for a population without providing too intrusive privacy. But if you want Google to follow you, you can turn off position tracking. For now, more data means that governments can make more informed decisions. And you can too, by the way. Since anyone can access the data, you can check how well your area is complying with home stay orders, which can help you make decisions about the importance of your next trip (or the degree of risk).

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