Google uses location data to show if people are social distancing amid coronavirus outbreak

Google headquarters in Mountain View, California

Google headquarters sprawls across a large campus in Mountain View, California.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

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Google is releasing reports on people’s movements during the COVID-19 outbreak to help health officials make critical decisions to combat the pandemic. The company on Friday published an early release of its COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports, which use anonymized location data collected from people’s phones to chart movement trends. 

Google says the reports can offer “insights into what has changed in response to work from home, shelter in place, and other policies aimed at flattening the curve of this pandemic.” They show trends on movements at retail and recreation locations, like restaurants and shopping centers, as well as trends at transit centers and residential areas. The reports initially cover 131 countries and regions, including all 50 states in the US, but Google said it plans to add more in the coming weeks. 

The reports are created with “aggregated, anonymized sets of data” from people who have the Location History setting turned on — Google notes it’s off by default — on their phones. The search giant says the reports will show trends over several weeks, with the most recent data representing 48 to 72 hours prior. To protect people’s privacy, Google said “no personally identifiable information, like an individual’s location, contacts or movement, is made available at any point. “

More to come. 

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