Data published by Google shows that social distancing measures to fight the COVID-19 global pandemic are significantly reshaping movement patterns, but Canada is lagging behind places that have been hardest hit by the virus.
According to Google, there’s been a 59 per cent decrease in traffic to retail and recreational sites like restaurants, cafes, museums and libraries.
The crisis response to the COVID-19 pandemic has led to governments around the world using technology to help track the spread, provoking questions about what level of surveillance and government monitoring is appropriate.
Google says that it is anonymizing and aggregating the location data in the same way that the company normally uses location from cell phones to offer real time traffic information in Google Maps, and insights about when retailers and restaurants are at their busiest. The company is publishing this data for 131 countries.
In a blog post, Google executive Jen Fitzpatrick and Google Health Chief Health Officer Dr. Karen DeSalvo, said that the data is meant to assist public health officials.
We will work to add additional countries and regions to ensure these reports remain helpful to public health officials
“Given the urgent need for this information, where possible we will also provide insights at the regional level. In the coming weeks, we will work to add additional countries and regions to ensure these reports remain helpful to public health officials across the globe looking to protect people from the spread of COVID-19,” the blog post said.
“In addition to other resources public health officials might have, we hope these reports will help support decisions about how to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, this information could help officials understand changes in essential trips that can shape recommendations on business hours or inform delivery service offerings. Similarly, persistent visits to transportation hubs might indicate the need to add additional buses or trains in order to allow people who need to travel room to spread out for social distancing.”
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, visits to grocery stores and pharmacies have dropped by 35 per cent in Canada compared to pre-pandemic baseline levels. Visits to parks are down as well, but only a reduction of 16 per cent.
Across Canada, data about visits to workplaces give a sense of how different provinces are responding to the public health crisis.
On average, traffic at workplaces in Canada is down by 44 per cent, compared to a reduction of 38 per cent in the United States. But the changes to our patterns of behaviour are substantially lower than the hardest-hit countries like Italy, where there’s been a 63 per cent reduction in visits to workplaces, and Spain, which has seen a 64 per cent reduction.
Meanwhile in South Korea, where officials appear to have controlled the spread of the virus, traffic at workplaces is only down by about 12 per cent, and visits to parks have increased by 51 per cent compared to baseline pre-pandemic levels.
Within Canada, British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec have seen the biggest reductions in traffic to workplaces, all slightly ahead of the national average.
But the picture is different in the prairies and Atlantic Canada.
Manitoba has seen a 36 per cent decrease in traffic at workplaces, while Nova Scotia has only seen a 32 per cent reduction.
The use of cell phone location data has been a growing topic of discussion as governments try to limit the spread of the virus. Already in Israel and parts of the United States governments are using this data to do contact tracing and track the spread of the infection.
But Ann Cavoukian, former Ontario privacy commissioner, and one of Canada’s most prominent advocates for limiting data collection and surveillance, said the Google community mobility reports are actually a model of how data from cell phones can be used without compromising individual privacy.
When they choose to be protective of the data, they know how to do it better than anybody
“I believe them that they’re using anonymized, aggregated data, and the risk to privacy when the data is strongly anonymized and then aggregated on top of that is truly minimal,” Cavoukian said.
“When they choose to be protective of the data, they know how to do it better than anybody.”
But she added that she’s worried about a broader push to give governments access to individualized data from cell phones.
“The problem is, any time the government gets these additional powers, they’re rarely revoked after the emergency — the pandemic — ends,” she said.
“You can do an enormous amount by de-identifying the data, anonymizing it and then aggregating it and using those models. Start there. If we find it absolutely doesn’t work in a few months, then we can reconsider. But you can’t leap to a full surveillance digital tracking model.”