Blind spots in location-tracking data can threaten both public health and human rights.
THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC has spurred interest in big data to track the spread of the fast-moving pathogen and to plan disease prevention efforts. But the urgent need to contain the outbreak shouldn’t cloud thinking about big data’s potential to do more harm than good.
Companies and governments worldwide are tapping the location data of millions of internet and mobile phone users for clues about how the virus spreads and whether social distancing measures are working. Unlike surveillance measures that track the movements of particular individuals, these efforts analyze large data sets to uncover patterns in people’s movements and behavior over the course of the pandemic.
In the US, mobile advertising companies are reportedly working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local governments to analyze how people’s movements have changed and where they are still congregating based on cell phone location data. Google has launched Community Mobility Reports based on the location data of Google Maps users to provide insights into how Covid-19 measures such as social distancing are working. Under its revamped Disease Prevention Maps initiative, Facebook is providing its research partners with data on population movement and friendship patterns to predict disease spread and compliance with public health measures.
As attractive as these projects might seem, companies and governments should ask whether they will deliver the public health benefits they promise, or misdirect government efforts in ways that endanger the rights of the poorest and most vulnerable people.
The 2014–2016 Ebola epidemic in West Africa offers a cautionary tale on big data. During the outbreak, Harvard-based computational epidemiologists obtained the call records of mobile phone users across the region in a bid to predict the spread of the virus and help public health authorities better target disease-prevention measures. However, this analysis may have been based on the wrong assumption that people’s movements were the primary vector of Ebola transmission, when in fact the virus was primarily spread through caring for the sick and during funeral preparations.
Research on cell phone usage patterns also casts doubt on the theory that call detail records are reliable for tracking people’s movements, even at an aggregate level.