How well are we social distancing? Smartphone location data can rank the states

Social distancing matters. Here is how to do it and how it can help curb the COVID-19 pandemic. USA TODAY

How well are we social distancing? Smartphone location data can rank the states

Health officials have begged Americans to practice social distancing and many states and cities have issued stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders to slow the spread of coronavirus. But not everyone is listening. 

Now, a tech company is using smartphone data to see where people are taking these instructions seriously.

Unacast, a Norweigan company which collects and analyzes location data from various sources, released a study ranking all 50 states and the District of Columbia on a Social Distancing Scoreboard. The company tracked the change in average distance traveled using smartphone data and scored each county by how much residents had reduced their travel. 

Overall, the study found that since Feb. 28, Americans have reduced their mobility by nearly 40%. Washington, D.C. topped the list, reducing its average mobility by 60% followed by Alaska, Nevada, New Jersey and Rhode Island, which all earned an A.

Meanwhile, Wyoming – the only state to receive an F – ranked 51st, with virtually no change in average mobility. Rounding out the bottom five states were Oregon, New Mexico, Idaho and Montana.

"We see that many states and counties have had a significant drop in mobility and distance traveled over the last week," said Thomas Walle, CEO of Unacast. "We are facing very uncertain times and what's important in uncertain times is to have access to some data to make the best decisions possible."

The company initially considered using other metrics for their dashboard, but found that distance traveled correlated well with the number of confirmed cases and captures how people adapt their everyday behavior by working from home, avoiding non-essential trips and canceling vacations.

The company said in a blog post that it plans to update the social distancing scores as it gets more data to show changes in the number of encounters for a given area, a change in the number of locations visited, and adjusts its home assignment algorithms. 

Walle said the company has gotten a lot of feedback from users including hospital workers who thanked them for bringing awareness to the need for social distancing.

"We launched this tool 24 hours ago, there’s been more than half a million people on the site and it’s climbing," said Walle. "So there’s clearly like a huge interest in understanding how the local community is doing."

The dashboard does not identify any individual person, device or household, but rather extrapolates population level data using "tens of millions of anonymous mobile phones and their interactions with each other each day," according to Unacast.

Big tech companies often require users to "opt-in" to location tracking to launch the service. Then, they follow your every move, even when you don't have the apps open. 

The government and health authorities could use that intel in their fight against coronavirus as infection cases continue to ramp up, experts say.

“If you have all the location data from a phone, you can see whether people are following the suggested shelter in place,” said Alex Hamerstone, a privacy and security risk manager at TrustedSec. “If the government says everybody should stay home, but based on location data, half the phones are moving all around town, the suggestions could then become mandates.”

Health officials hope that tracking data nationwide will allow for predictions on the likelihood of outbreaks in a given area, enabling officials to deploy aid to those areas.

“This can help public health agencies predict where most resources will be needed for hospitals in the coming weeks and prepare,” said Randy Pargman, senior director at Binary Defense and a former FBI agent.


News Related


Trump’s ‘mission accomplished’ moment is premature and deadly. We have not defeated COVID.

Desperate for crowds and adoration, Trump has put his most fervent supporters at risk of getting a deadly disease. Future historians will be astonished. Read more »

NFLPA president JC Tretter says NFL is putting season, players at risk with its coronavirus approach

NFL Players Association president JC Tretter said Tuesday the NFL is putting the 2020 season at risk with its coronavirus approach, calling on the league to better “prioritize player safety.” “Like many other... Read more »

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro says he tested positive for the coronavirus

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro says he has tested positive for COVID-19 after months of downplaying the virus’ severity. Bolsonaro confirmed the test results while wearing a mask and... Read more »

Venice Film Festival forges ahead amid COVID-19 pandemic with reduced lineup

The show will go on for the Venice Film Festival in September, but with a few modifications due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Organizers said Tuesday that they are pushing forward with plans for... Read more »

Amtrak offers buy-one, get-one promotion on its sleeper trains amid COVID-19 — with a catch

Amtrak wants you to have sweet dreams the next time you travel — so much so that it’s sweetening the deal on its sleeper “roomettes.” The rail service is offering a buy-one-get-one-free discount... Read more »

Florida teen treated with hydroxychloroquine at home before dying of COVID-19, report says

FORT MEYERS, Fla. – The family of a 17-year-old Florida girl who died last month from COVID-19 treated her symptoms at home for nearly a week before taking her to a hospital, a... Read more »

Mookie Betts worried MLB coronavirus testing woes could prevent him from ever playing for Dodgers

During nearly four months away from the game, Mookie Betts said he “stayed away from baseball to keep myself sane.” It’s not hard to understand why. The 2018 American League Most Valuable Player... Read more »

Tom Hanks doesn’t get ‘how common sense has somehow been put into question’ with coronavirus

Read more »

Can Gov. DeSantis force Florida schools to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic? Some school leaders seem doubtful.

PALM BEACH, Fla. — As concern about the state order spread online, some school leaders said: Not so fast. As Florida educators puzzle over how to start the new academic year, Gov. Ron... Read more »

Texas surpasses 200,000 coronavirus cases after 4th of July holiday weekend

AUSTIN, Texas – Texas reached 200,000 total COVID-19 cases Monday, just 17 days after crossing the 100,000 threshold, a figure that took the state nearly four months to hit. The grim milestone came... Read more »