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Google Joins With U.K. Researchers to Track Coronavirus Cases

Ryan Gallagher

(Bloomberg) --

Google is working with researchers in Europe to track the spread of the coronavirus using troves of location data gathered from smartphones.

The search engine giant is collaborating with academics from the University of Southampton in the U.K., who in turn are working with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, according to several people involved in the project.

The location data, which Google collects from location-enabled apps such as Google Maps, has been shared with the researchers in an aggregated and anonymized format. It can’t be used to track an individual person; rather, it shows broad patterns of movement across entire countries over periods of time, according to the people.

The data is helping researchers analyze the relationship between travel patterns and transmission rates of the virus within different countries, according to the people, while also providing insight into the effectiveness of lock downs in European countries.

“We are looking at inner-city movement across the EU and what it means for controlling Covid-19,” said Nick Ruktanonchai, an infectious disease epidemiologist and lecturer at the University of Southampton. “With the location data, we are testing different scenarios and simulating what might happen if countries don’t end their lock downs in a coordinated way. It’s about buying time. We want to make sure a big second epidemic doesn’t happen months down the line.”

Ruktanonchai’s description was confirmed by three others familiar with the project, who requested anonymity.

A spokesman for Google pointed to a blog post the company published on Friday, which stated that it was “collaborating with select epidemiologists working on Covid-19 with updates to an existing aggregate, anonymized dataset that can be used to better understand and forecast the pandemic.”

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The researchers are also working with telecommunications giant Vodafone Group Plc, Ruktanonchai said, and have combined data from Vodafone’s mobile phone networks with the Google location data in an effort to create more accurate models of movement patterns in Europe.

A spokesman for Vodafone Group confirmed that the company was working with Southampton researchers on a project to monitor how the coronavirus might develop in different scenarios.

In recent weeks, more than a dozen countries -- including the U.S., U.K., Italy, Germany, Austria, Spain, South Korea, Iran and Taiwan -- have turned to mobile phone location data as a method of monitoring people’s movements during the coronavirus pandemic.

Two of the U.K.’s largest telecommunications companies – British Telecom and Telefonica UK Ltd – have said that they have provided anonymized location data to the government to support policy planning during the coronavirus crisis. In Austria and Italy, authorities are using location data provided by Telekom Austria and Vodafone to keep tabs on whether people are following restrictions on movement.

The data has proved useful in determining whether lock down measures have been successful. However, privacy experts have raised concerns about its use. On Thursday, a coalition of more than 100 human-rights groups issued a joint statement that called on governments not to “disregard rights such as privacy and freedom of expression in the name of tackling a public health crisis.”

The work being done in the U.K. not only offers an insight into current movement patterns but also enables the researchers to try and predict future scenarios. “We’re looking at what happens if all countries coordinate lock downs” or end their lock downs at different times, said Andy Tatem, director of the University of Southampton’s WorldPop project, which is leading the research.

If countries in Europe don’t coordinate, Tatem said, it could lead to a resurgence of the virus.

Teams at Alphabet Inc.’s Google have been working for weeks to find ways to use the company’s large stores of data to assist governments and organizations to manage their response to the coronavirus outbreak, according to two people familiar with those efforts.

On Friday, Google announced that it would begin publishing “mobility reports” that show movement trends in 131 countries during the coronavirus pandemic. Google said the reports would document trends across different categories of places such as retail and recreation, groceries and pharmacies, parks, transit stations, workplaces and residential.

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