Google to release tracking data to help policy-makers evaluate COVID-19 measures

TORONTO — Google is preparing to dig into its trove of data to help Canada’s politicians and public health officials judge the success of measures aimed at ending the spread of COVID-19.

The California-based tech giant said early Friday morning in a blog post that it will start releasing movement tracking reports detailing traffic numbers for specifics places in Canada.

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The company will compile aggregated and anonymized data to chart movement trends at retail and recreation spaces, groceries, pharmacies, parks, transit stations, workplaces and residential areas.

The frequent reports won’t identify individual mobile devices, but will track fluctuations in the number of visits to each kind of space so politicians and public health leaders can assess whether work-from-home and physical distancing orders are working.

"This information could help officials understand changes in essential trips that can shape recommendations on business hours or inform delivery service offerings," said Google’s senior vice-president of Geo Jen Fitzpatrick and Google Health’s chief health officer Karen DeSalvo in their joint blog.

"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."

Google will make the reports available in 131 countries and in Canada will offer both provincial and national breakdowns.

Where possible, Google we will also provide insights at the regional level and will try to expand the number of markets it offers the data for.

The company did not say how often the reports will be shared, but said they will show trends over several weeks and include numbers based on data compiled between 48 and 72 hours before their release.

To protect people’s privacy, Google is vowing that no personally identifiable information,like an individual’s location, contacts or movement, will be made available at any point.

Google will only base the reports on users who have opted in to sharing their location history and these users will have the option to stop that sharing at any time.

"These are unprecedented times and we will continue to evaluate these reports as we get feedback from public health officials, civil society groups, local governments and the community at large," said the blog. "We hope these insights will add to other public health information that will help people and communities stay healthy and safe."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 3, 2020.

© Melita New Era