Google's mobility reports show a 12-percent increase in people staying at home.

On Friday last week, Google announced the release of its global location data as a tool to measure social distancing in the fight against COVID-19. Following the announcement, Google published anonymized, aggregate data for 131 countries and regions. These Community Mobility Reports illustrate how quarantine and shelter-in-place lockdowns have changed public behavior by comparing current user location data with data from 2 months ago. As the report landing page describes:

"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."

What's the data? Are people staying at home?

The report on the United States is one of the more detailed and breaks down the data to even the county level. Here's the nationwide data, courtesy of Google's report:

google report
Courtesy Google's US Community Mobility Report.
google report
Courtesy Google's US Community Mobility Report.

If you're interested, you can check out how your state and even county compares to other parts of the country. Google makes a couple of disclaimers: Location accuracy varies just like local conditions do, and the data shouldn't be used for medical diagnosis or for guidance on personal travel plans.

It's fascinating to look at other parts of the world, like Italy's massive 94 percent drop in the "Retail and Recreation" category.

Worried about your privacy?

Rights groups and experts are, too. Two Google bigwigs—Senior Vice President of Maps Jen Fitzpatrick and Chief Health Officer of Google Health Karen DeSalvo—discussed the public data release in a post to Google's blog, The Keyword.

Here are a couple of our questions, with answers from the blog post.

  • Q: Is my privacy safe? How is this made anonymous?

    A: "While we display a percentage point increase or decrease in visits, we do not share the absolute number of visits. To protect people’s privacy, no personally identifiable information, like an individual’s location, contacts or movement, is made available at any point . . . The Community Mobility Reports are powered by the same world-class anonymization technology that we use in our products every day. For these reports, we use differential privacy, which adds artificial noise to our datasets enabling high quality results without identifying any individual person."
  • Q: Did I opt in to this data collection? Can I opt-out?

    A: "The insights are created with aggregated, anonymized sets of data from users who have turned on the Location History setting, which is off by default. Users who have Location History turned on can choose to turn the setting off at any time from their Google Account, and can always delete Location History data directly from their Timeline. "
  • Q: Is there a need for this? How do you see this data being used?

    A: "We have heard from public health officials that this same type of aggregated, anonymized data could be helpful as they make critical decisions to combat COVID-19 . . . In addition to other resources public health officials might have, we hope these reports will help support decisions about how to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, this information could help officials understand changes in essential trips that can shape recommendations on business hours or inform delivery service offerings. Similarly, persistent visits to transportation hubs might indicate the need to add additional buses or trains in order to allow people who need to travel room to spread out for social distancing. Ultimately, understanding not only whether people are traveling, but also trends in destinations, can help officials design guidance to protect public health and essential needs of communities."

What do you think about the U.S. report? Are the numbers drastic to you, or not significant enough? Weigh in with a comment!