Did you know you are helping Apple track the effects of COVID-19?
By Henry Bazakas | June 5, 2020
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, amongst the deluge of information, misinformation, and opinion, were story after story (after story, etc.) about the necessity and inevitability of widespread behavioral changes. Some predicted that people’s travel and movement decisions would be impacted, with people limiting it to the essentials. Here are a few quotes from those articles:
- “People are going to start asking, ‘Do we have to meet in person?’”
- “Digital commerce has also seen a boost as new consumers migrate online for grocery shopping – a rise that is likely to be sustained post-outbreak.”
- “The experience may help us change our lifestyles for the better”
- “Coronavirus is a once in a lifetime chance to reshape how we travel”
While the long term validity of these predictions is unknown, since it has been almost three months since Donald Trump declared a state of national emergency , we are at a point where we can start to evaluate them. Apple Maps is utilizing user search trends to help do so.
One way to make inferences about people’s behavior is through the anonymized data Apple collects on requests made via Apple maps. This data is made available on Apple’s website, with a link to download the data for yourself. It contains data on over 2,000 counties or regions, drawn from 47 countries. The data uses mapping requests as a proxy for the level of mobility throughout society. This data can be of use in a social science capacity as a means of understanding the effects of COVID-19, but its collection raises ethical questions.
Understanding Societal Change
This information can be a valuable tool for researching human behavior. It can be interpreted as a natural experiment of sorts, as Apple can compare current to historical data to see just how big of an effect COVID-19 is having and how that is changing over time. This can help researchers appraise how effectively people are obeying social distancing measures over time and is a possible indicator of COVID-19 case trends at a county level.
On Apple’s website one can look at charts for any of the regions represented in the dataset, even breaking down by mode of transportation for some areas. I’ve included charts above for a variety of western countries, as well as for the San Francisco Bay Area, New York City, and Salt Lake City.
In most places Apple maps requests dropped by over 60% during early social distancing periods, since which time they have steadily risen. Some nations, including Germany and The United States are even above their “baseline” pre-COVID-19 values. This trend is showing at the regional level as well, although the extent of the bounceback varies. The extent of recovery also varies for different modes of transportation, with walking and driving recovering much more strongly than transit. This aversion to mass transportation is akin to what has happened in the airline industry , whose recovery has been very slow thus far as well. It remains to be seen whether people will fully revert back to 2019 transportation levels, but it does appear that walking and driving habits are showing meaningful return.
Some would argue that this level of data collection is excessive or an invasion of user privacy. “The information collected will not personally identify you”, Apple assures on their website, but can this be guaranteed, and does it give Apple the right to collect such private data? Information about where people are going is certainly data that some would be unwilling to knowingly divulge if they were given the opportunity to opt out. Apple does make efforts to prevent their users from being identified from this data by not tying it to ID variables or accounts and aggregating it at the county level. However, individual data has been collected without the informed consent of many users. The possibility of it being released is never zero, and even if it were, that doesn’t give companies the right to collect it.