Before You Use Our GPS Travel Data To Formulate Coronavirus Policy, Make Sure You Understand the Data

Confusing travel distance with actual human mingling is no way to create smart policy.


Companies are using aggregated GPS location data to track trends on how well citizens are changing their habits in response to COVID-19. While this information might be helpful, it has also prompted some unsettling and maybe misguided power plays.

It started in mid-March, when Unacast, a company that tracks and analyzes location data from people's phones, put together what a "Social Distancing Scoreboard" to attempt to calculate how successfully the citizens of each state are changing their travel habits.

Calling it a "Social Distancing Scoreboard" is itself a mistake. Social distancing is supposed to refer to the amount of physical space between individuals. But this scoreboard initially graded states on the basis of the distance people were traveling. Ostensibly this was an attempt to see if people were making fewer non-essential trips. That may be valuable data, but it's not what "social distancing" means.

It got worse when they started grading states. The only state to get an F was (and still is) Wyoming, which currently has 153 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and no deaths. New York state, now the world's epicenter in coronavirus infections and deaths, gets an A-. (The death toll in New York City alone has topped 1,500.) The reason for the difference should be obvious. Wyoming is a profoundly rural state. Of course its residents won't reduce their travel distances as much as someone in a big city. Sweetwater County, the physically largest county in Wyoming, has a population density of 4.2 people per square mile. New York City has a population density of 27,000 people per square mile.

And why should it matter that someone in Wyoming travels further to buy necessities? The goal is supposed to be reducing exposure within the population. People who live in high-density areas are going to have to take harsher measures than those who do not. I live in Los Angeles, and I have not traveled more than a mile from my apartment since the second week of March. But within that distance is a grocery store, and dozens of nearby restaurants are begging me to get their food delivered. I suspect the dynamics are different in Rock Springs, Wyoming, population 23,000.

Unacast subsequently upgraded its methodology to factor in whether a trip is "essential" or "non-essential." Its definition of "non-essential" venues includes consumer electronics stores, office supply stores, toy stores, and movie theaters. But it also includes restaurants and hotels, which in some contexts might be very essential.

Unacast seems aware that rural environments are going to be different, and the company's explanation of its methodology makes it clear that these data map people's behavior, not the path of COVID-19's spread. They hope, they explain, to "provide direct aggregated feedback to policy makers and community leaders on how well their social distancing measures are being adopted by the general public, and if more severe restrictions do lead to a reduction in the number of reported cases of COVID-19."

Because we are in the grip of "We have to do something, anything, to stop the spread of coronavirus," leaders are turning to this aggregated data to justify "more severe restrictions." Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee just used aggregated travel data to justify stricter "stay at home" orders, even though Unacast's data showed about a 45 percent decline in travel distance and "non-essential visits" even before his order.

In Vermont, the state has ordered big-box stores to stop selling items they deem "non-essential" within their stores and to cordon them off from shoppers. (Delivery and curbside purchases are still permitted.) Of course, just because the government says these goods and products are not essential, doesn't make it true. Garden goods have been deemed non-essential, which doesn't seem the right message for a time when people are supposed to be holed up at home with plenty of food.

Now Google is offering aggregated reports showing travel data from phone users who have turned on their location history settings. The information is being aggregated anonymously so that nobody's privacy will be violated. But nevertheless, these data can be abused. Wyoming is showing a decline in travel to most places but an increase in visits to parks. That tells you nothing about whether people are social distancing in those parks. But as we've already seen in the United Kingdom, police are quite capable of confusing "traveling to parks to get exercise" with "not engaging in social distancing." On Thursday, Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies arrested a paddleboarder off the coast of Malibu for violating a stay-at-home order. Bringing the man to the sheriff's station in Calabasas for processing before releasing him exposed him to a much greater risk of COVID-19 infection than if they had just left him alone.

Google warns against using its data to compare regions that are different from each other. Whether officials will pay attention to that warning remains to be seen.

Aggregated trend data can be useful, but that usefulness depends on reasonable, responsible decision-making. Unfortunately, when leaders haven't always grasped even how COVID-19 is transmitted—neither Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp nor New York Mayor Bill de Blasio seem to have understood until this week that asymptomatic people can spread the virus—there's reason to doubt that we'll see smart decisions.

NEXT: New York City Wants You To Call the Cops on People Who Fail Social Distancing

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  1. I don’t want them using it especially if they understand the data.

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  2. Bullshit made up words.
    Bullshit made up data.
    Bullshit policy.

    1. +10000

      More and more Americans are ignoring government and hanging out together.

      This is a media and government conspiracy to go hysterical over a minor illness that kills less people than the seasonal Flu/Cold.

      1. I hope so. There are only two ways to get out of social isolation:
        1. Invent and test a vaccine, then produce enough to inoculate 300,000,000 people;
        2. Wait until most people have had the disease, hopefully slowly enough so hospitals can handle the small minority who get really sick.
        Only when everyone has the t-shirt, can schools reopen and folks get back to work.

        1. Most Americans have been exposed to the Kingflu. Most never experienced severe symptoms and never got infected or recovered with minor symptoms.

          The hysteria has blinded some Americans with fear.

        2. “There are only two ways to get out of social isolation:”

          Chicken little III
          Fuck off, slaver.

  3. Everybody was Kung Flu Frightened
    Just watch those screws get tightened.

    1. +1000000000000000

      They were funky China men from funky Chinatown
      They were chopping them up and they were chopping them down
      It’s an ancient Chinese art and everybody knew their part
      From a feint into a slip, and kicking from the hip

  4. Benefit of living out in the rural/small town areas is we can get outside and recreate and not have to stay cooped up in a 700sq foot box.

    I’ve actually found myself driving a bit more than normal I think.

    The weather has gotten better so its time to get outside and hike and bike. Can only do that in town so much before I want to head out to the reservoir for bike and hiking trails, or some bouldering at the bluffs. Even if everyone in the county turned up in all the green spaces in the county there’d still be plenty of empty space to recreate in.

    I lived in our county 5 years and there’s a lot of roads I have yet to drive. Now seems as good a time as any to check them out.
    So on spring’s frequent rainy days, we go for drives in the countryside to enjoy the sweet ride we picked up a few months ago.

    1. Yeah, driving around is just as isolated as sitting in your house. And gas is cheap!

      1. Just wait until gasoline is deemed non-essential for “civilians”.

        1. No problem here…the sweet ride runs on electrons.

          And because it is spring, electrons are in great abundance round here.
          Temps becoming more moderate mean power usage is low even with people at home, spring means the wind is always blowing so the turbines are constantly generating, and the hydro reservoirs are full of winter runoff.

          1. Well,….OK. Just don’t be hoarding electrons.

    2. I used to live in NYC, and I’m grateful right now that I live in a suburban area with big wide sidewalks that are uncrowded even in “normal” times (except maybe during special holiday parades and whatnot). It’s so easy to go out for a walk on a nice day and still maintain strict “social distance.”

  5. The Google data has another horrible flaw. How do they calculate whether going to parks is becoming more or less frequent? They compare it to the ‘baseline’. And what is the baseline?

    “● The baseline is the median value, for the
    corresponding day of the week, during the 5-
    week period Jan 3–Feb 6, 2020.”

    So, here in Michigan, you might not be surprised to learn that park use is up substantially on recent warm, sunny spring days in April as compared to cold, gray, windy, snowy 20-degree days in ‘effing JANUARY. Idiots.

    What not do the obvious thing and compare park use in April 2020 to park use in April 2019? Obviously because that wouldn’t fit the narrative of showing people flouting social distancing and being able to justify the closure of the parks and bike paths. And oh, BTW, apparently trying to keep up Malibu, Michigan’s governor just banned all boating in the state — you can’t do much better in terms of social distancing than being out kayaking, but we can’t allow that because, well, it looks a little bit like free, responsible people having a bit of actual FUN.

    1. Safety Sally says boating, hiking, and biking are hazardous activities.

      Why you could stub your toe and need paramedics putting them at risk of catching the commie cough.

  6. Garden goods have been deemed non-essential

    Oh, FFS! How about TPTB provide a definitive list of “essential” items and perhaps we can see how things are shaking out.

    1. Assume everything is ‘non-essential’ and then try to get someone on the phone to tell you one way or the other.
      The idiots making the ‘rules’ have no idea regarding the harm they are causing, and when it becomes obvious, they’ll claim to have saved ‘millions of lives’ as a result, absent any data whatsoever.
      Thank you JFree, Hihn and the rest of the chicken-little assholes for demolishing a vibrant economy so you might avoid a case of the flu!

      1. they’ll claim to have saved ‘millions of lives’ as a result

        Saved or *created* millions of lives. A wonderful baby boom is coming!

  7. The classic example of people smart enough to like infographics, but too stupid to do any reasoning with them.

    1. Nobody who likes infographics is smart enough to do any reasoning, with or without the infographics.

  8. At least the two NRA handgun classes I’m taking have been ruled essential. The classroom part will be done virtually, but I’m looking forward to five hours of trigger time. Yippee!

  9. Of course, just because the government says these goods and products are not essential, doesn’t make it true.


  10. There’s a simple solution (of course not counting the obvious). I haven’t left my house in 3 weeks, in spite 3-4 shopping trips.

    1. And what is that simple solution that works for a single person living in rural Wyoming? You know, places so remote that you still have to make a special trip into town to pick up your mail.

      1. Turn off your stupid phone!

      2. Lol. I leave the phone at home. According to phone data, I haven’t budged. But yeah, turn off the phone is another option.

  11. It is calving season. That means I am driving 14 miles 4-5 times a day to check on heifers and cows (we don’t yet have a place built on the ranch, was hoping this summer). Normally I drive out to the ranch only twice a day and my office is less than a mile away (I walk there about half the time). So if you tracked my usage, despite me working from home right now, it would appear my travel has actually increased. It has but not because I am not practicing social distancing. It doesn’t get much more socially isolated then my ranch. Seven miles in the car with my son (it is best to check cattle in pairs when possible, mama cows can be very aggressive), check the cows and then seven miles back.

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  13. Unlike New York, Wyoming is not full of pussies. Oh, excuse me, Betters.

  14. Non-essential businesses include consumer electronics stores, office supply stores….

    So all those people working at home, if their computers malfunction or they run out of printer paper or something like that– I guess they’re all screwed now?

    1. We had to get printer ink yesterday; there went ~2-3 hours for someone to start an account, place the order on line, and then go stand in line (6′ apart) at the store.

  15. i think this news is totally wrong because no body verify it

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