4.7 C
New York
Tuesday, March 21, 2023

How Apple and Google's Social Distancing Maps Work

You're probably aware that your phone tracks your location. It's how Google can suggest which restaurants are nearby, and how Facebook can tag the bar you're in, and how Apple can tell where you left your iPhone if you lose it. Now Apple and Google are turning that mass of data into a tool to track just how strictly people are sheltering in place around the globe during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Apple's version launched a few days ago; you can see it here. Google had a head start by several weeks, and you can see its take here. They're both similar in their approach and their aims: Use mapping data gathered from phones to see how much less people are traveling in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Apple Mobility Trends Report

Apple's portal, which it calls the Mobility Trends Reports, is the more straightforward of the two to use, pulling in anonymized data from routing requests. In other words, it counts how many times people request driving, walking, or transit directions during a day, and then plots the number of those requests on a chart.

When you first load up the page you'll see this data aggregated by country. Germany's routing requests through Apple Maps are down by 37 percent from baseline at the time of writing, for example. The US is down by the same margin.

Look back to the middle of January, and you'll see how this compares with normal life, with spikes during the day and the week as people move from place to place. As more localities impose Covid-19 lockdowns, the numbers start to drop. A steeper line means a more drastic lockdown, or at least closer adherence to those orders.

Using the search box up at the top of the chart, you can look up statistics for particular parts of the world and the US. Try typing in a city or a country, for example. Apple splits up each region's data by walking, driving, and public transit directions for countries where Apple Maps provides it. You can see far more dramatic drops in countries like Singapore, which put in strong restrictions early, than Sweden, which has taken a more relaxed stance toward social distancing.

The statistics are intriguing, but bear in mind they only tell a part of the overall picture. People on foot may not typically need directions as much as people in cars, for example. There are also seasonal differences to account for, as people all tend to spend more time indoors during January and February anyway, at least in the parts of the world where those months count as winter.

If you're eager for more data, you can download the whole lot in a massive CSV file (a very basic spreadsheet). Click All Data CSV to get the file, then import it into something like Google Sheets or Apple Numbers. The data download doesn't include anything that's not in the charts, but you can dig into exact figures more easily.

Google Community Mobility Reports

To view Google's equivalent data, head to its Community Mobility Reports page. You'll see it's built along the same sort of lines. There's no handy online chart, so you need to click Download PDF next to the country, state, or city you want to take a look at, but what you get in return is a bit more detailed than Apple's offering. As well as the countries listed, you can use the search box to look up individual US states or cities around the world.

Google's approach varies slightly in that it aggregates data about where people are spending their time, rather than collecting numbers of navigation requests. If your phone is at a residential location more often than normal, for example, or at a park location less often, this will show up in the graphs.

The graphs themselves aren't quite as detailed as Apple's but cover the following location categories: retail and recreation, grocery and pharmacy, parks, transit stations, workplaces and residential. In most parts of the world, you'll see a major shift from workplaces to residential over the last couple of months. To download all the data from everywhere in full, click Download global CSV.

As with the Apple data, don't be too quick to make sweeping generalizations—Google's mapping data isn't necessarily quite as comprehensive or as accurate across each country, so it's difficult to make comparisons. Some regions will have much more in the way of retail space than others as well, so they're starting from a different baseline.

Map-Tracking Privacy

If you're wondering whether data from your phone is included in these reports, the answer is yes, probably. However, both Apple and Google are keen to emphasize that they've collected this data with user privacy in mind.

"Data that is sent from users' devices to the Maps service is associated with random, rotating identifiers so Apple doesn’t have a profile of your movements and searches," Apple says. "Apple Maps has no demographic information about our users, so we can't make any statements about the representativeness of our usage against the overall population."

For Google's part, the privacy disclaimer says this: "No personally identifiable information, such as an individual's location, contacts, or movement will be made available at any point. Insights in these reports are created with aggregated, anonymized sets of data from users who have turned on the Location History setting, which is off by default."

In other words, Apple and Google are pulling this data without any personally identifiable information attached, aggregating it from the mass of location reports being sent back to their servers on a regular basis.

When it comes to privacy, location is one of the pieces of data that worries people the most. No one wants third parties snooping on their whereabouts or tracking them on a map. But in our modern times, it's very difficult to use a smartphone without allowing Apple and Google to log your whereabouts.

You can control which apps on your phone can see your location and make a record of it. On Android, go to Settings, Location and App permission; on iOS, launch Settings then choose Privacy and Location Services.

Separate from these options, Apple and Google can still track your device's whereabouts as part of the iOS and Android operating systems. It's how those "find your phone" tools work, and how your phone knows what the time and date is, and so on.

To stop this data from being collected on Android, head to Settings and Location, and turn the Use location toggle switch to Off. On an iPhone, open Settings then choose Privacy and Location Services, and turn the Location Services toggle switch to Off. Remember this means you won't be able to use any sort of mapping app on your phone.

If you leave those master settings on, you essentially have to trust Apple and Google to use your location data securely and responsibly—both when that data is anonymized (for live traffic updates in maps and Covid-19 tracking reports, for example), and when it isn't. (If Apple and Google know where you live, they can tell you when the commute home is going to be longer than normal.)

Related Articles

Latest Articles