Cooped up in our homes, while anxious about returning to work and the rhythms of normal life, it’s only natural to want a sign that we’re gaining ground of the coronavirus. Early this past week it looked like we had something like that from a company called Unacast, which studies location data collected from mobile devices. The tech start-up released a report showing the extent to which people are restricting their movements and, hopefully, limiting spread of the virus.
That report, while offering a morsel of hope, also leaves a funny aftertaste. Our mobile phones are chuffing off a lot of information about us. Indeed, the federal government knows it and has been in talks with tech companies about using that data to determine how much people are restricting their travel.
We live in an upside down world. The only way we’ll break the physical and economic virus now tying our country in knots is by being accountable to each another — namely by keeping our distance — to stop the spread of COVID-19. Still, the thought of the government looking into people’s mobile phone locations is a scary one. Tracking phone data to ensure individual compliance with social distancing is a bridge too far.
To be sure, there is no evidence of plans within the government to do that, at least on the individual level, according to the Washington Post. Instead, the Post reports the government is in talks with the likes of Facebook, Google and others to study aggregate data that could show whether people are keeping their distance -- in other words, something like the Unacast report released this past week.
On the surface, it seems, we’re doing a good job. In the report, Massachusetts scored a “B” grade for the change in distances traveled by people from late February through March 23, according to the location data revealed by their mobile devices. Average mobility in the state declined about 40%, according to the report.
Mobility in Essex County declined 39% — which is nowhere near as striking as the 66% decline reported on Nantucket or the 55% decline in Suffolk County. Not surprisingly, we in the North of Boston region do a better job of limiting our movement than folks in the more-spread-out communities of western Massachusetts.
Residents of New Hampshire have been slightly more successful at curbing travel, according to Unacast, which gives the Granite State an “A” grade for restricting its mobility. Hlllsborough County leads that state in cutting back travel, with movement restricted by 46%.
The report is encouraging, even if it doesn’t necessarily say that people are keeping the requisite six feet of distance from one another, or that they’re following other tips to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Nor is it a barometer of COVID-19 cases, which have exceeded 3,200 in Massachusetts and are approaching 200 in New Hampshire.
Instead, it’s a picture of the effectiveness of orders to close schools and shutter all but essential businesses, and pleas to people to stay inside their homes with limited contact with others. “We can start to see and learn what states are getting this right,” Thomas Walle, CEO of Unacast, told the Washington Post. “Over weeks now, we can identify what are the states and counties that are putting measures in place, and see if the number of cases stabilizes or drops.”
He stresses that these measurements are only taken broadly. “Everything here is on the aggregated level,” he said. “We can’t tell or disclose if any individual is staying at home or not.”
Incidentally, the average change in mobility for the United States as a whole was 27%, according to the Unacast report. It’s clear that rest of the country has some catching up to do.
The Unacast report is hopeful. It is reassuring to see the effects of our sacrifices to stop the spread of the coronavirus, including the draconian measures put in place by our governments that have left a breathtaking number of people out of work. Hopefully this data on declining travel will soon turn into data that shows not as many new cases of COVID-19, fewer hospitalizations and even fewer deaths.
That said, sharpening the focus of this instrument much more than where it’s now set should be unnecessary — particularly if the eyes of government are the ones peering into the other end.