Google's sharing Canadians' location data with the government, but says privacy's assured
TORONTO -- Google is sharing its Canadian users’ location data to help politicians and public health officials in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The tech giant said in a blog post Friday that it will start releasing regular movement reports of its users in areas across Canada.
“In Google Maps, we use aggregated, anonymized data showing how busy certain types of places are—helping identify when a local business tends to be the most crowded,” Dr. Karen DeSalvo, chief health officer for Google Health and Jen Fitzpatrick, senior vice president for Google Geo, wrote in a blog post.
“We have heard from public health officials that this same type of aggregated, anonymized data could be helpful as they make critical decisions to combat COVID-19.”
The reports use data to chart movement trends over time across different places such as retail and recreation, groceries and pharmacies, parks, transit stations, workplaces and residential, Google said.
“This information could help officials understand changes in essential trips that can shape recommendations on business hours or inform delivery service offerings,” DeSalvo and Fitzpatrick wrote.
“Similarly, persistent visits to transportation hubs might indicate the need to add additional buses or trains in order to allow people who need to travel room to spread out for social distancing. Ultimately, understanding not only whether people are traveling, but also trends in destinations, can help officials design guidance to protect public health and essential needs of communities.”
The reports will not show the number of individual visits, but instead will display a percentage increase or decrease.
“We’ll show trends over several weeks, with the most recent information representing 48-to-72 hours prior,” the blog said.
The California-based company said it hopes its community mobility reports provide” insights into what has changed in response to work from home, shelter in place and other policies aimed at flattening the curve of this pandemic.”
In a report dated March 29, Google breaks down countrywide, provincial and territorial data showing a percentage decrease or increase in visits to places across Canada.
Bar charts compare human traffic from Feb.16 to Mar. 29 at retail and recreational venues, train and bus stations, grocery stores and workplaces with a baseline from earlier this year.
Nationally, visits to retail and recreation destinations plunged 59 per cent compared to the baseline, a five-week period from January 3 to Feb. 6.
Trips to grocery stores and pharmacies were down 35 per cent, while visits to the park decreased by 16 per cent.
Transit stations across the nation saw a 66 per cent decrease in traffic, and commuting to work fell 44 per cent.
Unsurprisingly, due to health advice to stay at home, Google found a 14 per cent increase in people in homes.
PROVINCES AND TERRITORIES
Transit stations and retailers, which includes restaurants, saw the largest percentage drop in traffic across all the provinces and territories.
Quebec has the biggest decline in both, with a 70 per cent reduction in stores visits and a 75 per cent fall in people going to transit stations.
Google found a large discrepancy across the provinces around visits to parks, though the data includes time before emergency orders were made by regional governments.
Visitors to parks in New Brunswick doubled, but fell by a significant 68 per cent. In British Columbia, where people flocked to the beach despite advice to stay at home, park visits increased by 27 per cent.
For the Northwest Territories, data sets were missing for parks, transit, workplace and residential figures as their was not enough data. In Nunavut, Google only had enough data to show a 47 per cent drop in retail traffic.
To protect people’s privacy, no personally identifiable information, including an individual’s location, contacts or movement, is made available at any point, the company said.
"These reports have been developed to be helpful while adhering to our stringent privacy protocols and policies," DeSalvo and Fitzpatrick wrote.
“For these reports, we use differential privacy, which adds artificial noise to our datasets enabling high quality results without identifying any individual person.”
Google will make the reports available in 131 countries and in Canada will offer both provincial and national breakdowns.
Google can only use data from users who have location history turned on in their account settings. Location history can be turned off at any time and location history data can also be deleted.
"These are unprecedented times and we will continue to evaluate these reports as we get feedback from public health officials, civil society groups, local governments and the community at large," said the blog. "We hope these insights will add to other public health information that will help people and communities stay healthy and safe."
Google said it was also collaborating with epidemiologists working on COVID-19 with “updates to an existing aggregate, anonymized dataset that can be used to better understand and forecast the pandemic.”
“Data of this type has helped researchers look into predicting epidemics, plan urban and transit infrastructure and understand people’s mobility and responses to conflict and natural disasters,” the blog said.