Looking at COVID-19 Smartphone Mobility Data – Social Distancing in My County

Alternate Post Title: Social Distancing Data in Delightful Denton County

Next up on “today I learned” — Google is using smartphone data to track the effectiveness of COVID-19 social distancing protocols all over the world, and they are posting the results on this website.

This information is interesting to me for several reasons:

  1. Smartphone data can be incredibly informative and useful for so many purposes
  2. It is great to seed that the effects of social distancing/stay-at-home protocols are real and able to be tracked
  3. The way that our smartphone data is being used raises some concern for me over privacy and ethics

According to Google, this data “does not identify individual people” and is only generated by phones that have the location tracking setting actively turned on. Hopefully, this means privacy is less of an issue and this data-set can be used to help inform everyone, from policy makers to average citizens, without ethical concerns. However, it is also important to note that because this data does not account for every person or even every smartphone user, there is some sample bias involved.

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Your smartphone data may be being used by Google to help track the effects of COVID-19 social distancing and stay-at-home orders. Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

 

Given that this data is publicly available, I decided to do a little analysis of the county where I live in Texas. Here’s what I found.

 

Note: This post is based on the limited data provided and my speculations on the situation, so I do not intend it to be taken as a serious scientific study. I recommend that everyone look at the data available to them and form their own informed opinions, as well as listen to the advice of educated experts.

Source report generated by Google: https://www.gstatic.com/covid19/mobility/2020-03-29_US_Texas_Mobility_Report_en.pdf

P.S. I recommend reading the “About This Data” section at the end of the report linked above for more information on what the data represents and how it is collected.

 

 

Denton County’s Overall Status Report

 

I currently reside in Denton County. For those of you unfamiliar with the area, here’s a very brief summary of the demographics:

Denton County

Location: North Texas

Size: 878.43 square miles (1413.696 sq km)

Population: 887,207 (July 2019 est.)

 

The county is centered around the city of Denton, population 138,541 (July 2018 est.). Denton is home to two fairly large public universities, the University of North Texas and Texas Woman’s University.

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The iconic Denton County Courthouse on the square in Denton, TX. Photo by Gervelemae on Unsplash

Denton County is currently under a mandatory stay-at-home order that began just over 1 week ago and has officially been extended for 1 more week. As the government continues to update their COVID-19 policy on a weekly basis, it is likely that the order will be extended at least a few more times. The stay-at-home order requires that citizens stay in their place of residents except to conduct essential activities, such as getting groceries. The order has also resulted in the closure of many businesses deemed “non-essential.” Residents outside of those with jobs deemed essential could be fined or face jail-time for non-compliance with the order, although I haven’t heard of any instances of this happening so far.

 

According to the Google smartphone data, it seems that overall the stay-at-home guidelines in Denton County are working.  There has been a 42% decrease from the usual baseline in workplace “location pings” and a 14% increase in residential pings, meaning that more people are probably working from home or simply not going to work at all. There has been a 47% decrease in retail and recreation pings, most likely because many retail stores and centers of entertainment are now closed until further notice.

denton county distancing data google_march 29 2020
Denton County smartphone location data from Google, dated March 29, 2020. Source: https://www.google.com/covid19/mobility/

 

Despite reports of apocalypse-level hoarding and panic buying, even grocery store and pharmacy pings are down by 27% in Denton County. Hopefully this means that people are sticking to regular but less frequent grocery runs for their necessities. It is interesting to note what seems to be a spike of about 30% around March 13th, which is when closures and cancellations started to dramatically increase, and panic buying started to surge in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. I remember going to CVS on my lunch break that week and witnessing a woman with her arms full of toilet paper waiting in the cashier line. The storm before the storm.

 

One data-set that hasn’t experienced a clear change in trends is the parks location data. I wonder how easy it is to establish a “baseline” for this data in the first place, as the number of park visitors is likely highly dependent on factors such as the weather and the day of the week. As for whether we should be halting our park visits, I’ve seen mixed opinions on the topic. As of today, Denton County and the cities within it have not closed their parks, although they have closed off high-contact areas such as playgrounds and tennis courts.

 

Denton County vs. Our Big Neighbor Dallas County, and the State of Texas as a Whole

 

Compared to the state of Texas, Denton County is pretty average when it comes to changes in this mobility data. Except for parks, our location data is mostly comparable. You can even see the same spike in grocery and pharmacy visits around the same time, as residents around the state likely experienced similar news of cancellations and similar reactions to that news.

texas covid mobility data google march 29
State of Texas smartphone location data from Google, dated March 29, 2020. Source: https://www.google.com/covid19/mobility/

texas data cont march 29

I imagine that the difference in the parks data may have to do with the types of parks that exist in Denton County versus the types that exist all around Texas. As people are traveling less and doing less leisure activities, I would think that they would be less likely to visit a national park or historical monument. As of today our state parks are still open, but with limited operations.

The state of Texas’ statewide stay-at-home order is similar the one present at the Denton County level. Perhaps the most notable part of the Texas order is the declaration that schools will close (or stay closed if already so). Up until the order was issued, school closures were being enforced by school districts individually, with varying results. The state order currently gives counties and cities power to enforce slightly different stay-at-home guidelines, as long as they don’t conflict with the statewide procedures.

Denton County’s smartphone data is very similar to the data captured in our bigger (by about 1,700,000 people) neighbor Dallas County, which put in place a similar stay-at-home order a few days before Denton County’s order went into effect. Just as with the Texas state data, the main difference is in the recent parks’ location pings.

dallas county covid mobility data march 29
Dallas County smartphone location data from Google, dated March 29, 2020. Source: https://www.google.com/covid19/mobility/

Government officials in the city of Dallas have threatened to close down parks if they continue to see residents ignoring social distancing guidelines. The higher population density in Dallas (as opposed to cities like Denton) is probably a big contributing factor to this issue.

 

In Conclusion

 

Smartphone mobility data collected by Google gives us reason to believe that social distancing guidelines are having a measurable effect on life in Denton County, most notably in a 30%+ decrease in visits to retail/recreation centers and workplaces. The effect is generally comparable to the effects of social distancing orders in neighboring Dallas County and the state of Texas as a whole.

This got me thinking…is there anywhere in Texas where smartphone mobility data during this time is drastically different?

In the “About This Data” section at the end of the report, there is advice against comparing areas with largely different demographics,) due to the nature of the data collection. In many cases, the data for rural Texas counties is unavailable due to lack of volume. So, I skimmed the Texas report in search of another urban or semi-urban county with a similar population but different data…

And I couldn’t really find one.

It seems that social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders are having a similar effect on life in all the urban and semi-urban areas of Texas, at least according to this dataset. It would be interesting to hear from someone experiencing rural Texas life, or to see a better representation of the rural data. Also, other data indicators used to check on social distancing in Texas as a whole show that we may have room for improvement. For example, this article states that “Texas has only decreased its average distances traveled by 20%.” Different data, different way of looking at the situation.

 

There’s still a lot of uncertainty right now—in government policy, in business, and in regular everyday life. As we are all trying to figure this out the best we can, know that social distancing guidelines do seem to be working in many places, and that studies and simulations have shown social distancing is effective in “flattening the curve.”

 

I’d be interested to know, how does your county/region’s data stack up? And how has your social-distancing experience been so far? How are you doing?

 

I will end this post with a link to some social-distancing related memes:

https://thoughtcatalog.com/january-nelson/2020/03/social-distancing-memes-and-pictures/

 

Stay healthy.

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Photo by Nicola Fioravanti on Unsplash

 

 

 


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