|Weekly News Digest
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COVID-19 NEWS: ‘Smartphone Data Reveal Which Americans Are Social Distancing (and Not)’
Geoffrey A. Fowler writes the following for The Washington Post:
If you have a smartphone, you’re probably contributing to a massive coronavirus surveillance system.
And it’s revealing where Americans have—and haven’t—been practicing social distancing.
[A] company called Unacast that collects and analyzes phone GPS location data launched a “Social Distancing Scoreboard” that grades, county by county, which residents are changing behavior at the urging of health officials. It uses the reduction in the total distance we travel as a rough index for whether we’re staying put at home. …
Unacast’s location data comes from games, shopping and utility apps that tens of millions of Americans have installed on their phones—information the company normally analyzes for retailers, real estate firms and marketers. It’s part of a shadowy world of location tracking that consumers often have little idea is going on.
It’s not alone. Google also collects and shares where we go. Long before the coronavirus, the Google Maps app has included a live read of how busy popular destinations are, based on location data. Facebook’s Instagram, too, lets you see other people who’ve recently shared updates from places. Both tools are useful for anyone who wants to practice social distancing and avoid spaces that are busy for a jog or fresh air during shelter-in-place orders. …
Unacast assigned an A grade to places that show at least a 40 percent decrease in average distance traveled. On March 20, the first day in its database, the states as a whole that earned an A included Alaska, Massachusetts, Nevada and Vermont. Big reductions in movement are also visible in areas hit hard by the virus, such as New York City (a 57 percent change) and California’s Santa Clara county (a 54 percent change).
Unacast deemed anything less than a 10 percent change an F. Only Wyoming earned that grade. …
Unacast’s scores, which haven’t been vetted by public health authorities or epidemiologists, don’t pick up on whether people are staying at least six feet apart, a central tenet of social distancing. But the company says it is exploring adding layers to its view, including a change in the number of locations visited.
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