Google's new coronavirus update: Location data reveals impact on people's habits in your area

Google releases global movement trends to help in the response to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

Google has released smartphone location data that reveals the impact the coronavirus outbreak has had on travel to work, transit stations, parks, retail outlets, and grocery stores. 

The new global Community Mobility Reports are intended to help public health officials understand how populations are responding to social-distancing rules designed to slow the spread of coronavirus COVID-19

The first reports, covering 131 countries and regions, include a graph that takes Sunday, February 16, as the baseline for normal activity and tracks changes in movements through to Sunday, March 29. 

The data show movement trends at key locations, including retail and recreation, groceries and pharmacies, parks, transit stations, workplaces, and residential. It does not include the absolute number of visits.

SEE: Digital transformation: A CXO's guide (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

They reveal striking differences between nations in movement trends to key locations, reflecting differences in when and how each country implemented lockdowns or began recommending social distancing. 

The US report shows a gradual decline in movement to retail and recreation – such as shopping centers and cafes – from Sunday, March 8, which accelerated downwards the following Sunday. By Sunday, March 29, visits to these places had fallen 47%, while visits to parks and workplaces were down 19% and 38%, respectively. 

In Italy, the hardest hit country in Europe, the decline in travel to retailers begins gradually after February 16 and then accelerates rapidly after March 1. By March 29, retail visits were down 94% while visits to parks and workplaces have fallen 90% and 63%, respectively.      

The drop-off in movement is even more dramatic in Spain, which imposed a nationwide lockdown on Monday, 15 March. That lockdown is reflected in a steep decline from that date, which is maintained through to March 29. Retail and recreation visits there are down by 94%, too. 

Over the period, the visits to retail and recreation in the UK have fallen by 85% but the decline, while rapid, has been slower than in Spain. 

In Australia visits to retail and recreation begin declining after Match 15 and are down 45% compared with the baseline. 

In Sweden, which has so far avoided its Scandinavian neighbors' lockdown measures, visits to retail and recreation have only declined by 24% while park visits are up 43%. In Norway retail visits are down 65%.  

Like Sweden, South Korea, which has a strategy of rapid testing, shows visits to retail down by only 19% and visits to parks are up 51%. 

Germany has seen a drop in visits to retail and recreation places of 77% over the period, which started to accelerate on March 15. 

Google's mobility reports also show state-level movement trends. Visits to retail and recreation locations in New York, the worst-hit city in the US, are down 62%. Meanwhile, visits to parks and workplaces are down 47% and 46%, respectively. 

It's a similar picture in California where visits to retail outlets and parks have fallen 50% and 38%, respectively. 

Google thinks the reports could help officials understand changes in essential trips that can shape recommendations on business hours or inform delivery-service offerings. 

Google's reports are based on data from apps such as Google Maps and are from devices that have enabled Location History in settings. Google uses the data to show how busy different places are, for example, when a local business is more crowded.

SEE: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Per the BBC, Google shared the report a day after EU justice chief Vera Jourova asked tech companies to share more data with scientists to fight the new coronavirus.

Google hasn't said how frequently it will release the reports, but the latest information includes movement trends representing 48-to-72 hours prior.


Visits to retail and recreation locations in New York, the worst-hit city in the US, are down 62%.  

Image: Google
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