Google phone-tracking reveals who’s still going out

Commuting to work has dropped by a third in Australia, the use of public transport has more than halved and, despite concerns about panic-buying, visits to the grocery store and pharmacy are down by almost 20 per cent since last month.

Revealing new statistics also show two Australian states are taking social distancing rules more seriously than the rest: Victoria and Tasmania.

Internet giant Google delivered the verdict on Australians' movements during the coronavirus pandemic in one of 131 national Community Mobile Reports released yesterday.

 

The company used anonymous location data taken from smartphones to compile the reports, comparing users' movements on February 16 to their trips taken on March 29.

A sign explains social distancing in a laneway off a Sydney road. Picture: David Crosling
A sign explains social distancing in a laneway off a Sydney road. Picture: David Crosling

Google's Australian research showed visits to retail, dining and entertainment venues, many of which have now been ordered to close, fell by 45 per cent during the month.

Visits to parks and beaches also fell 35 per cent, the report found, and Australians took 33 per cent fewer trips to work, with a particularly steep drop off after March 22.

Public transport recorded the greatest decline in travel movements, down 58 per cent, but even grocery stores and pharmacies recorded 19 per cent fewer visits during the time period.

Victorians and Tasmanians were making the biggest changes to their daily lives to fight COVID-19, according to the report, with movements consistently lower than the national average.

Despite Melbournites' famed love of coffee, Victorian travel to cafes and other food and entertainment venues dropped by 51 per cent, work commutes fell by 37 per cent in the state, and public transport use fell by 68 per cent - 10 per cent below the national figure.

Tasmanians also made massive cutbacks, with 70 per cent fewer visits to parks, beaches and gardens, and 30 per cent less travel to supermarkets.

By comparison, West Australians were the most likely to attend their workplaces, and visits to the park actually climbed in Canberra, up 38 per cent.

Local residents exercise at South Melbourne beach during stage three lockdown due to the coronavirus. Picture: AAP Image/Michael Dodge
Local residents exercise at South Melbourne beach during stage three lockdown due to the coronavirus. Picture: AAP Image/Michael Dodge

The travel movements of all Australians could fall more sharply in the coming weeks, however, after even more strict social distancing rules were introduced nationally, including bans on bootcamps, weddings, funerals, and all non-essential travel, and police in each state enforce the restrictions with fines.

Google's smartphone-tracking data arrived just days after the Australian Department of Home Affairs revealed it was considering the use of anonymised data from smartphones to track potential coronavirus hot spots, as it has been done in 22 other countries so far.

In the US, for example, information from the mobile advertising industry is being used to identify which parks, beaches, and shopping centres are seeing large gatherings.

Google said it had prepared the reports to help "health officials understand responses to social distance guidance" and had harvested the data from smartphones using Google services.

"We calculate these insights based on data from users who have opted in to 'location history' for their Google account so the data represents a sample of our users," the company said.

"No personally identifiable information, like an individual's location, contacts or movement, is made available at any point."

Originally published as Google phone-tracking reveals who's still going out



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