Using Google’s data to monitor social distancing

Our COVID-19 coverage is free. Please consider a Devex Pro subscription to support our journalism.
People wait in line and maintain physical distance before entering a public market to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in Muntinlupa City, Philippines. Photo by: © ILO / Minette Rimando / CC BY-NC-ND

NAIROBI — When the government of Mozambique announced a “state of emergency” in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, religious services and celebrations in places of worship were suspended, among other social distancing measures.

Tracking COVID-19: What are the implications for privacy and human rights?

Rights groups are concerned about the increasing intrusion of government surveillance — and what it means for privacy and human rights generally.

But that has proven hard to enforce: People in the capital city of Maputo have visited the popular church of Cenáculo Maior on average two times more than usual since the beginning of April, transit stations are more popular than before the pandemic started, and visits to parks haven’t stopped.

In Kathmandu, Nepal, however, which has been under lockdown since the end of March, people have frequented the most popular shopping malls and Hindu temples less than half as much as they used to.

This is all based on data collected by the Surgo Foundation, which shows how busy certain destinations are — such as parks, churches, transit stations, shopping malls, mosques, and supermarkets — in over 100 cities in low- and middle-income countries, compared to pre-pandemic days.

The aim of the tool is to help governments understand how their populations are reacting to lockdowns, researchers to identify how social distancing is impacting the spread of the disease, and NGOs and the private sector in directing resources to areas that are at high risk of an increase in caseloads because people are not distancing from one another.

“I think social distancing is really, right now, the main mitigation intervention that we have in relation to COVID,” said Sema Sgaier, co-founder and executive director of the Surgo Foundation. “Social distancing is going to remain with us for the foreseeable future, if not longer.”

Google’s data tracks venue popularity

The foundation created a dashboard that is updated hourly using Google Maps' “Live Popularity” feature, which looks at whether people are social distancing in what Google identifies as a city’s most popular areas.

“If you see a particular pattern in the data, as a policymaker, in your country or in your city, that would be a very good starting point to then ask questions like: ‘Why are we seeing this pattern?’”

— Peter Smittenaar, senior research scientist at the Surgo Foundation

Based on Google’s description of the data it collects, the company tracks the movement of people who have the Google Maps application downloaded on their phones and have their location history turned on. To create the popularity feature, it matches that data with particular locations.

The foundation then gives a score to the location — in terms of how popular it currently is compared to a baseline of data. For example, a .7 score, means that the location has about 70% the traffic that it typically does.

While Google doesn’t publish how it computes its baseline of data for its Live Popularity feature, the Surgo Foundation’s analysis of the data has shown that it is stable, said Peter Smittenaar, senior research scientist at the Surgo Foundation, leading the foundation to believe it is based on many months, if not years, of data.

To choose its locations, the Surgo Foundation looked at low- and middle-income countries, as defined by the World Bank, looking at major cities, and the most popular venues that Google had listed in these cities in a set of categories, such as churches, grocery stores, shopping malls, and transit stations.

Every hour, the Surgo Foundation has its software run through a list of thousands of venues that it has indexed across the world on Google Maps, collecting this popularity data.

Based on this data set, the Surgo Foundation has identified Maputo, Mozambique; Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia; and Medan, Indonesia, as the cities that have had the least social distancing, compared to previous movement in these cities. Meanwhile, Kathmandu, Nepal; Chittagong, Bangladesh; and Lima, Peru, are the cities identified to have the most social distancing.

According to Smittenaar, policymakers could use this data to see if people are following the lockdown measures, and to identify what locations people are still visiting, and where they are avoiding.

“If you see a particular pattern in the data, as a policymaker, in your country or in your city, that would be a very good starting point to then ask questions like: ‘Why are we seeing this pattern? Do we need to go look on the ground to think about the policies we have?’” he said.

Is social distancing practical in low-income settings?

Whether social distancing, in the form of widespread lockdowns, is a practical solution for low-income settings is still up for debate.

“It’s difficult to apply social distancing in Africa,” said Amira El Fadil, commissioner for social affairs at the Africa Union Commission, in a recent webinar hosted by the Center for Global Development

“We live together. We have large families living in, sometimes, small houses. And it’s difficult to apply, on the level of the family, social distancing,” she explained.

How do you say 'social distancing' in Swahili?

Around the world, translators are tasked with communicating emergency health advice that may have little meaning or relevance in a local context.

Beyond cultural barriers, there are also significant economic challenges. Many people in these countries are dependent on daily wages for survival and don’t have the luxury of working from home, said Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak, professor of economics at Yale University, during a recent webinar hosted by news outlet

In these cases, social distancing needs to be targeted, including providing allowances for people to move around to earn a living, he said. But he added that governments should still ban large gatherings, such as religious services.

“There might be central directives telling people don’t go to mosques. But these things are not easy to enforce in more rural areas. You really have to get the community involved in enforcing these bans,” Mobarak said.

There are also broader questions around the ultimate gain from these types of policies. The aim behind social distancing is to “flatten the curve,” meaning there are a low number of coronavirus cases at any given point in a country, so as to not overwhelm the health system. But in countries with incredibly weak health systems, this could have limited value, he added.

“If it turns out that you don’t have ventilators that can benefit people in three months from now, in say remote rural areas, then it doesn’t matter if people are getting sick today versus three months from now,” Mobarak said. “Given that the benefits are smaller, then we also have to think about what are the costs that we are imposing on society in order to social distance.”

Because of this, the African Union is prioritizing widespread testing in order to track and contain the virus over the enforcement of social distancing, El Fadil said.

“Testing is what is going to give us the reality of the epidemiological situation in the continent,” she said.

Visit our dedicated COVID-19 page for news, job opportunities, and funding insights.

About the author

  • Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is a Global Health Reporter based in Nairobi. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, and Bloomberg News, among others. Sara holds a master's degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists in 2018, part of a Vice News Tonight on HBO team that received an Emmy nomination in 2018 and received the Philip Greer Memorial Award from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2014. She has reported from over a dozen countries.