Coronavirus: Smartphone data can reveal which Americans are practicing social distancing

Smartphone data can reveal which Americans are practicing social distancing during COVID-19

Whether you like the idea of social distancing or oppose it during the coronavirus pandemic, there is a good chance someone is tracking your traveling habits -- especially if you own a smartphone.

On Tuesday, a company that collects phone GPS locations launched a Social Distancing Scoreboard. The Washington Post reported. Unacast uses the data to grade, county by county, which residents are changing behavior to practice social distancing, the newspaper reported,.

The company uses the reduction in the total distance people travel as a rough index to determine whether people are staying at home, the Post reported.

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Unacast assigns letter grades to counties and states based on how much residents have changed their movements on a specific date compared to what is average on that day of the week, the Post reported. If more people are staying home because of state orders, a reduction in travel will be reflected in Unacast’s data.

The website compared the nation’s mass movements Friday to an average Friday, the Post reported. As a nation, the United States earned a B for a 32% decline in average distance travel.

The top states Wednesday -- which each earned an A -- were Alaska, Nevada, New Jersey and Rhode Island, plus the District of Columbia. Bringing up the rear were Oregon and New Mexico, which were given C’s; Idaho and Montana, which had D’s; and Wyoming, which received an F.

Unacast said it uses location data from games, shopping and utility apps that millions of Americans have installed on their smartphones, the Post reported.

The maps are searchable and will be updated daily, the newspaper reported.

To earn an A, a locale must show at least a 40% decrease in average distance traveled, the Post reported. Anything less than 10% meant the locale got an F, according to the newspaper.

Unacast’s scores do not determine whether people are remaining at least 6 feet apart, which is the current benchmark for social distancing.

Unacast Chief Executive Officer Thomas Walle told the Post he hopes the maps can help track compliance with stay-at-home orders, and measure if they have been effective.

“We can start to see and learn what states are getting this right,” Walle told the newspaper. “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.”

Of course, compiling such data could make privacy advocates skittish, because companies like Unacast are collecting information on locations without obtaining permission, the Post reported.

Walle said the apps Unacast uses to get its location data let users know they are doing, but declined to name those apps, the newspaper reported.

“Everything here is on the aggregated level,” Walle told the Post. “We can’t tell or disclose if any individual is staying at home or not.”

One company has launched a "Social Distancing Scoreboard" to track whether people are complying with social distancing.
One company has launched a "Social Distancing Scoreboard" to track whether people are complying with social distancing.