Google published this Friday a report analyzing the effects that confinement has had on mobility of the countries. The objective, they have explained in the announcement, is to help the health authorities to take measures with which to continue fighting the coronavirus pandemic.
Each of these community mobility reports, as the US multinational calls them, is broken down by location and shows change in visits to places like grocery stores and parks. Information based on the same data that services such as Google Maps use and that provide valuable data. More if possible in a situation like the current one.
The analysis of Google ensures, for example, that the use of public transport has dropped 88%
In Spain, for example, a country that exceeds two weeks of mandatory confinement with very few exceptions, the report shows data such as a 94% drop in trips to restaurants or a decrease in the use of public transport by 88%. But, How does Google obtain this data? Are we talking about the same information that the mobility study prepared by the Government will use? Are they going to geolocalize us now? We respond.
Location history is key
Creating such reports would not be possible if millions of people around the world did not share their movements. Specifically, in the case of Google analysis, via Google Maps and location history, an option that records our movements through the mobile.
Each one of the movements we make, visits to a certain type of establishment, tours by private vehicle or public transport, time spent at home … everything is registered thanks to that option, in the event that we have it activated.
The same data with which Google feeds characteristics on occupancy of establishments or lists of popular places, is used to prepare mobility reports
The union of our data with that of the rest they form the “aggregated and anonymous dataset” with which Google creates these reports and feed certain characteristics of its services. This way they find out which are the most popular places, how busy a certain place is, what areas of a city are usually more crowded, or what is the traffic on a highway.
“No personally identifiable information, such as an individual’s location, contacts or movements, will be available at any time”, they affirm from Google, although their practices and other initiatives that are jumping to the present time these days, such as the mobility study that the Government of Spain intends to carry out during the health crisis, have once again reopened the debate about the Privacy. Although nothing new is happening.
Another type of mobility study, which has been carried out by the Spanish National Statistics Institute, uses data sets obtained through telephone operators.
The study announced by the Spanish authorities, for example, aimed at analyzing the mobility of citizens during the state of alarm, is similar to the one that caused controversy a few months ago. The objective is to use the anonymous and aggregated mobile phone antenna data, to find out how the population usually moves or in an extraordinary situation like the current one.
The fundamental difference between both initiatives, beyond the source of the data, is the way to avoid being part of the analyzes. In the case of Google, it is enough to deactivate the location history if we had it activated and delete all the information that it may have collected. In the case of INE studies, we would have to contact our telephone operator, although not all of them have established a specific mechanism to request the exclusion of this type of analysis.
Google makes an x-ray of our mobility during confinement: how do they get all that information?