Smartphone Data Helps Score US States On Social Distancing

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A Norwegian data analysis company is using GPS data from millions of Americans’ smartphones to determine to what extent they’re adhering to social distancing measures and whether such actions are helping limit the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S.

In recent days and weeks, local, state and federal health officials have strongly urged the public to practice social distancing measures as a means of combating the rapid spread of the coronavirus.

The company, Unacast, specializes in human mobility data analysis and also has an office in New York City. It used geo-tracking data collected through smartphones to calculate the change in users’ average distance traveled over a set amount of time. The tool then plots that change in average distance traveled against the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in a given county or state to determine whether social distancing measures are having an affect on the spread of the virus.

The results of that data collection and analysis are presented in the company’s social distancing scoreboard, which gives counties and states a letter grade based on the degree of change in residents’ average distance traveled from before the pandemic.

The company made the scoreboard accessible to anyone “to help raise awareness of and reinforce the importance of social distancing.”

We also believe it will not only help make sense of what’s happening now, but unearth trends that will help project scenarios in the short- and mid-term future,” it said on its website.

The company acknowledged limitations of its scoring system.

“Travel distance is one aspect, but of course people can travel far without meeting a soul or travel 50 feet and end up in a crowd — so we know that the real world picture can be quite complex,” it said on its website. “...changing behavior will trigger adjustments in our data strategy. That’s why, post launch, we will be continuously working to improve our social distancing models.”

Among the areas the company is working to gain a more robust understanding of are how a change in the number of encounters for a given geographic area, as well as a change in the number of locations visited, contribute to an area’s social distancing score.

The company said this will eventually allow it to add layers to its scoreboard that capture more of the complexity of social distancing.

Below is a breakdown of GLOW region counties’ social distancing scores. All four counties scored lower than the state average. The scores listed below are based on data through March 21.

Genesee County

n Grade: C

n Average distance traveled change: 21 percent decrease

Livingston County

n Grade: B

n Average distance traveled change: 31 percent decrease

Orleans County

n Grade: B

n Average distance traveled change: 36 percent decrease

Wyoming County

n Grade: A

n Average distance traveled change: 44 percent decrease

New York State

n Grade: A

n Average distance traveled change: 48 percent decrease

To try the scoreboard for yourself, visit Unacast’s website, here. For an explanation from the company about how it created its social distancing scoreboard, click here.

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