Apple opens access to mobility data, offering insight into how COVID-19 is changing cities

Apple is providing a data set derived from aggregated, anonymized information taken from users of its Maps navigational app, the company announced today. The data is collected as a set of “Mobility Trends Reports,” which are updated daily and provide a look at the change in the number of routing requests made within the Maps app, which is the default routing app on iPhones, for three modes of transportation, including driving, walking and transit.
Apple is quick to note that this information isn’t tied to any individuals, as Maps does not associate any mobility data with a user’s Apple ID, nor does it maintain any history of where people have been. In fact, Apple notes that all data collected by maps, including search terms and specific routing, is only ever tied to random rotating identifying numbers that are reset on a rolling basis. This anonymized, aggregated data is collected only to provide a city, country or region-level view, representing the change over time in the number of pedestrians, drivers and transit-takers in an area based on the number of times they open the app and ask for directions.
As far as signals go for measuring the decrease in outdoor activity in a given city, this is a pretty good one, considering Apple’s install base and the fact that most users probably don’t bother installing or using a third-party app like Google Maps for their daily commuting or transportation needs.
The data is available to all directly from Apple’s website, and can be downloaded in a broadly compatible CSV format. You also can use the web-based version to search a particular location and see the overall trend for that area.
For an individual, this is more or less a curiosity, but the release of this info could be very useful for municipal, state and federal policy makers looking to study the impact of COVID-19, as well as the effect of strategies put in place to mitigate its spread, including social distancing, shelter-in-place and quarantining measures.
Apple has also announced that it’s working with Google on a new system-level, anonymized contact tracing system that both companies will first release as APIs for use by developers before making them native built-in features that are supplemented by public health agency applications and guidance. Apple seems particularly eager to do what it can to assist with the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, while still striving to ensure that these measures respect the privacy of their individual users. That’s a hard balance to strike in terms of taking effective action at a population level, but Apple’s reach is a powerful potential advantage to any tools it provides.

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