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Age of Coronavirus: Grading Our Social Distance Through Smartphones

Psst, Some of Us Are Being Watched

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Above image credit: By turning on the location services on our smart phones, data is mined and analyzed by third-party companies. (Adobe)

Stay-at-home orders in the Kansas City area have stopped life as we knew it, all in an effort to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

So, if the Kansas City metro were rated for social distancing compliance, what grade would you guess? Data compiled by a company called Unacast did just that. And this piqued Jack Zhang’s interest, which he tweeted about last week.

“Initially I was interested in looking into it mainly to get a sense whether or not people are committing to social distancing,” said Zhang, who is a political science professor at the University of Kansas. “If they are, then the curve would come down.”

As of April 6, Unacast’s analysis gave counties in Missouri a C average. The grades are worse in Kansas, averaging a low C, high D. 

Using GPS data from people’s mobile phones, it crunches the percentage of change in mobility and spits out the results in an interactive map called a “Social Distancing Scoreboard.” According to the website, the scoreboard “measures COVID-19-driven changes in human mobility in any U.S. county.” 

In other words, it compares habits before and after the pandemic. 

In a nutshell, the data used to find out, say, whether Jackson County earned a C grade for compliance are mined from a little thing called “location services.” Most people allow apps to track their location for convenience sake. 

What does this do for public health awareness? On the surface, grading counties might appear like a good indicator of who is going where and what places to avoid if COVID-19 flares up. 

But, said John Symons, location tracking data isn’t new – and it can be dangerous. Symons is a professor of philosophy of computer science at the University of Kansas. Unacast’s use of location data brings up the issue of surveillance and data sharing.

While Unacast’s privacy policy is “one of the clearest,” Symons warned: “Notice, you haven’t agreed directly to have a relationship with this company that is tracking you. We ought to think carefully about individual liberty and how we’re prepared to make trade-offs between individual liberty and public health.” 

This kind of tracking is common in East Asia, Zhang confirmed. For instance, in South Korea location data is used and shared so people know what areas to avoid if there’s a large cluster of people with COVID-19. 

kcpt.org/coronavirus

Based on a person’s location and medical clearance records, there’s a green, yellow or red light to indicate whether people can go about their day. Users can check where people are and take precautions as necessary.

In Unacast’s case, says University of Kansas sociology professor Bill Staples, it’s only tracked a small portion of the population. 

“And the data are limited in what it can do,” Staples added.  

So this doesn’t paint a complete picture of how residents are really socially distancing. It also doesn’t take into account distances people who live in rural parts of the country must drive to buy basic necessities.

While this tool may reveal surface-level patterns of how residents’ behaviors have changed, it is important to read the fine print, Staples said.

“Just like anything else, know the details,” he said. “Go below the headline and read how the data was collected.”

Location Services settings
Location services settings are found in “privacy” on iPhones. (Vicky Diaz-Camacho | Flatland)

Staples is a sociology professor and the founding director of the Surveillance Studies Research Center at KU. The bulk of his research for the past 20 years has focused on the way in which the lines “between these two spheres of social life are increasingly blurred by the use of new surveillance technologies,” according to his book “Everyday Surveillance.”

He said tools like Uncast’s are not all bad, but it’s important to note that during a public health emergency like this pandemic, a lot of key questions go unasked. 

“We like surveillance when we perceive it gives us control. So all the surveillance people have on their doorbells and cameras makes us feel safe,” Staples added. 

“But then the bigger question is what happens when the emergency is over?” 

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