Story at a glance

  • A data collection company uses GPS data to track the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on venues and travel patterns.
  • The company tracked the change in distance traveled before and after the coronavirus outbreak in each county to determine how well residents had been practicing social distancing.
  • By comparing a "social distancing score" with the number of reported cases, the company issued grades to each state and county for adherence to social distancing guidelines.

Schools might be closed, but Americans are still getting graded on their performance during the novel coronavirus outbreak. Haven’t turned anything in? Check your phone. 

A data collection company is using GPS data from smartphones to track travel patterns since before the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the United States more than two months ago. By tracking the change in distance traveled by smartphone users each day since before the coronavirus outbreak, Unacast scores each county on how well users in its boundaries are adhering to social-distancing guidelines. A 40 percent or greater decrease in distance traveled earns an A grade, while a less than 10 percent decrease or an increase in movement is an F.  

D.C., Alaska, Nevada, New Jersey and Rhode Island were the top five ranked states, all with A grades, while Oregon, New Mexico, Idaho and Montana were in the bottom five, with Wyoming coming in last as the only state with an "F." According to the interactive map, states in the Upper Northwest appear to be practicing social distancing the least, while states in the Northeast as well as California and Texas appear to be social distancing more. 

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Anonymous mobile phones are tracked via their interactions with other phones, but the company said they do not identify individual people, devices or households. Based in New York, the company originated in Norway and said they are operating under the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation as well as the California Consumer Privacy Act. The model depends on the sample of devices from each of these states and, on the county level, is based on counties with a sizable number of observed devices on the latest day. 

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Less travel suggests that people are working from home more, avoiding nonessential trips and canceling major travel or vacation plans as suggested by public health officials. In a blog post, the company said they tested other metrics for scoring, but found that the change in average distance traveled correlated well with the number of confirmed cases and worked despite fluctuations in data and unknowns such as home locations. 

Unacast said they will continue to improve the model by exploring changes in the number of encounters for a given area as well as changes in the number of locations visited.

 

 

Published on Mar 24, 2020