Coronavirus: Google launches new tool to help public health officials plan social distancing measures

Google hopes to get feedback from the community before eventually updating the reports daily.
Google hopes to get feedback from the community before eventually updating the reports daily.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE - Google has launched a new tool which will show places where crowds had been gathering, in response to calls from public health officials to get better insights into whether social-distancing measures are working to slow down the spread of Covid-19.

It is not a live-tracking tool, but taps historical data 48 to 72 hours old to generate the reports.

The insights are created with privacy-preserving sets of data from users who have turned on the Location History setting, which is off by default, in their Android devices.

Providing insights for 131 countries including Singapore, the Covid-19 Community Mobility Reports show a percentage increase or decrease in the movement of people to broad categories of places using Google Maps-styled tracking mechanism.

The six categories of places are: retail and recreation, groceries and pharmacies, parks, transit stations, workplaces and residential.

With the data, public officials can, for instance, recommend changes in the business hours of grocery stores to thin out crowds. Similarly, crowding at certain transportation hubs might indicate the need to run more parallel routes for social distancing.

Announcing the effort in a blog post on Friday (April 3), Google senior-vice president Jennifer Fitzpatrick and chief health officer Karen DeSalvo wrote: "We have heard from public health officials that this same type of aggregated, anonymised data could be helpful as they make critical decisions to combat Covid-19."

The two Google executives assured the public that no personal data such as location, contacts or movement is shared with other users in the process.

Google hopes to get feedback from the community before eventually updating the reports daily. The firm will also expand the coverage of these reports to include more countries and regions over the next few weeks.

To slow down the spread of the virus, Singapore has banned gatherings of over 10 people and said people need to stay at least a metre away from each other.

Meanwhile, Australian states have limited groups of people gathering outside to two. Lockdown measures in many other countries also limit the movement of people to the buying of essential goods and services such as food and medical care.

 
 
 

As the spread of the coronavirus shows no signs of abating, there have also been calls by a group of 75 technologists, epidemiologists and medical professionals for big tech firms like Google and Apple to provide an opt-in feature on all smartphone operating systems to allow for background contact tracing.

In an open letter led by Mr Peter Eckersley, distinguished technology fellow at global think-tank Electronic Frontier Foundation, the group believes that this approach would make large-scale contact tracing of the sort that has worked in China and South Korea possible everywhere - without the need to create a contact-tracing app for every country.

Users would be notified if they had been in the same places as subsequently identified cases - to enable self-quarantine and early detection.

But Google said it will not provide background contact tracing.

"The types of location data Google collects as part of our Location History product is inappropriate for this purpose.

"The product was not designed to provide robust or high-confidence records for medical purposes and the data can not be adapted to this goal... This location data may be incomplete and insufficiently granular for public health purposes," a spokesman told The Straits Times.

To date, about one million people have downloaded Singapore's contact-tracing app TraceTogether but the tool has not been beneficial yet for the purpose it was designed to do.

At least three-quarters of Singapore's population - or 4.3 million people - need to use the app for the tool to be truly effective in combating Covid-19, National Development Minister and co-chair of the multi-ministry task force set up to fight the coronavirus Lawrence Wong previously said.

Launched on March 20, TraceTogetherworks by exchanging Bluetooth "handshakes" with other nearby devices. Turning on the Bluetooth function is a must.

The phones keep a record of devices within 2 metres for at least 30 minutes. If someone had contracted the coronavirus, his or her phone would have the details of the devices in close proximity for contact tracing.

 
 
 

Without the app, contact tracing would take longer and be less accurate as the process would have depended on a patient's memory of who he or she has had contact with.

Since then, experts from several European nations have also come together to plan the roll out of a similar-styled, privacy preserving tool like TraceTogether that can work across borders with the use of country codes.

A study by researchers at Oxford University's Big Data Institute said 60 per cent of a country's population would need to use such an app for the approach to be effective, and suggested that people without smartphones could wear Bluetooth-enabled armbands.