CHICAGO: The coronavirus outbreak has sparked a new use for data smartphones collect about users’ locations.

Technology companies are using location data to track how much people are staying at home during the pandemic. Often, the findings are made available to government officials, to help them determine how well containment efforts are working.

The data, which is compiled using GPS coordinates on phones, is being used to track everything from how far people are straying from home to how those patterns stack up to pre-pandemic travel. Foot traffic at bus stops and parks can be tracked. Some of the data can be broken down to the state or county level, or by city block.

The city of Chicago is using location data to help inform its decision-making during the pandemic, said Peter Ruestow, senior epidemiologist at the Chicago Public Health Department’s Communicable Disease Programme.

The city works with a tech company called BlueDot, which aggregates geolocation data to show how many devices stayed at home each week in each of the city’s 77 community areas.

By the time the city gets the data, it’s in the form of trends, and is anonymous, Ruestow said. If the data shows devices tended to move farther from home, that might indicate that people who live there are traveling farther for work or services.

“We have not used it stand-alone to make any major decisions,” Ruestow said. “It’s just an additional data point that allows us to better inform our response and help us to understand the effect of the interventions we put in place.”

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The location information is the same data that helps push the local weather report to your phone and allows Google maps to show what time a restaurant is busiest. Users can opt out of sharing the data.

Still, some experts worry people will chose to sacrifice privacy for safety amid the public health crisis – and that reclaiming that privacy could be difficult once the pandemic ends.

“How do you balance on the one hand the need to keep people safe… and on the other hand, our civil liberties and freedoms?” said David Gunkel, a media and technology professor at Northern Illinois University. “It’s a difficult balancing act.”

Users typically benefit from allowing apps to know their location. A retail brand, for example, might push coupons to users’ phones when they’re near a store.

But by allowing their devices to collect data on their location, consumers are agreeing to share important details about their whereabouts that could be used for more than marketing.

“We’ve been trading privacy for convenience for a long time now,” Gunkel said. “Now we’re being asked to trade privacy for safety, and I think more and more people are willing to make that trade… because now it’s a matter of life and death.”

The question, Gunkel said, is how much privacy are people willing to give up to stay safe, and is there an expiration date on that privacy trade-off?

Some tech companies that have started putting out reports using location data have made their own promises. Google, for example, said its coronavirus-related data sets will only be available for as long as public health officials need them.

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Several weeks ago, the tech giant began releasing reports that show changes in trips to places like grocery stores, pharmacies and parks. Anyone can download the reports. The information is meant to help officials decide whether hours need to be changed or if more buses need to be added to a route to better promote social distancing, according to a company blog post.

Google’s mobility reports are separate from its partnership with Apple on contact tracing technology. In that effort, the tech giants plan to build software into smartphones that would use Bluetooth wireless technology to find out if users had been in contact with someone who had Covid-19. Users would need to opt in.

Other tech companies that typically focus on marketing are venturing into providing pandemic-related data.

New York City-based tech company Cuebiq uses its location data to help brands and retail companies understand if marketing campaigns are driving more visits to their stores. But amid the pandemic, Cuebiq also has been releasing mobility data.

CEO Antonio Tomarchio said the location data is anonymous. The company works with various mobile apps that embed its location technology, and users can opt in or out. The insights it draws are trends, and not individualised, he said.

“We don’t know anything about the user, we don’t know anything about the owner of the device, and we don’t care,” Tomarchio said. “We care about aggregate trends of visits at commercial venues like retailers or malls, or places like airports.”

Experts point out that using location data to look at trends excludes those who don’t have smartphones, who opt out of sharing their data or simply leave their phones at home.

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Still, some experts say people might find location insights increasingly useful if the economy begins to reopen while the coronavirus is still a threat. People might want to know where in the city the disease is still spreading, or how crowded the lakefront is, for example. That information might prove more important than location privacy.

“Will safety become the No. 1 thing?” said Jeremy Hajek, an industry associate professor within the School of Applied Technology at the Illinois Institute of Technology. “That’s what people in society have to decide.” – Chicago Tribune





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