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Leveraging mobile phone data during a pandemic

Smartphone user data is hugely valuable at a time like this. Which is why governments all over the world from Israel to South Korea are using aggregated telecom data to try and track how their citizens are moving during this pandemic.

Some are calling this a violation of digital rights. I don’t know enough to comment on that specifically, but I do know that the value to society as a whole is clear. It strikes me that if we knew (1) who was infected (you know this by doing widespread testing), (2) where people have been, and (3) where people are today, we would be in a much better position to contain the spread.

To that end, Singapore’s Ministry of Health has been publicizing a surprising amount of information regarding its cases. And that data has been in turn made into interactive maps. You can see who is infected, where they live and work, which hospital they were admitted to, and so on. Is this an overshare? Or is this price of collective health and security?

The New York Times has similarly gone and visualized the movement of people and the virus using data from major telecoms, Baidu, and other sources; though in this case it is more of a retrospective view of what went wrong as opposed to a proactive management tool. The argument they make is that Wuhan’s lockdown was too little, too late.

According to the NY Times, 175,000 people left Wuhan on January 1st alone. Throughout the month of January, outbound travel from Wuhan accelerated as many started to fear a lockdown. About 7 million people left in January. Where they travelled to can be found here. Would it be too draconian to use this kind of mobile phone data to see who is obeying a lockdown and who is not?

Images: New York Times


  1. Trebecca

    I dunno, tracking people’s travel during a lock down sounds pretty Orwellian to me. I’m not comfortable with Singapore’s rather blaze position on publishing that level of detail to the public either. I’m sure this type of surveillance is done on some level already, but I’m not total comfortable with it being published. It’s like the CIA, we know it exists, but it’s probably better for the public that we make movies about the things about it that we THINK we know. I would rather have the information available, in aggregate form, to those who need to make large decisions about public health, but that’s it. I’m frankly concerned about the aftermath or stigma in communities where people have been infected and who may have inadvertently infected others. Extreme responses to grief and isolation could be amplified due to that kind of easily available data.


  2. Pingback: Beer over water and the story of John Snow | BRANDON DONNELLY

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