Location data gathered from St. Mary’s County residents shows they are moving around more than some other areas during the COVID-19 lockdown, and a former county commissioner expressed concern regarding how that information was collected and said it was an infringement on privacy.
In April, Google published “community mobility reports,” a cluster of location data gathered from billions of users’ cellphones, to show whether visits to shops, parks and workplaces were above or below average. According to the report, in the United States, travel to most places decreased dramatically but activity in parks and residential neighborhoods increased to above average.
Unacast, a data company that collects and provides cell phone location data and analysis to retail, real estate, marketing and tourism industries, created an interactive scoreboard online, updated daily, to aid organizations in measuring the efficacy of social-distancing initiatives at a local level. The company also uses beacons, sensors and point of sale devices to gather data, according to its website.
The scoreboard breaks numbers down by county and gives grades based on average rates of mobility for each jurisdiction compared to mobility before COVID-19. This past weekend, after the governor’s stay-at-home order was lifted, St. Mary’s County earned an F, meaning it showed less than 25% reduction in average mobility.
However, over the last month and a half, the data indicated St. Mary’s scored mostly daily grades of C (40% to 55% reduction in average mobility) or D (25% to 40% reduction), with some B grades (55% to 70% reduction) sprinkled in. The data appears to track similar to Maryland data as a whole.
The site, available at www.unacast.com/covid19/social-distancing-scoreboard, also tracks changes in non-essential visits (mostly F grades in St. Mary’s based on less than 25% reduction) as well as differences in encounter density (mostly grades of D or F).
Confirmed cases of COVID-19 are still on the rise in St. Mary’s County and Maryland as a whole. On Wednesday afternoon, the county recorded 340 confirmed cases and 12 deaths, according to the St. Mary’s health department.
Cindy Jones, a former Republican St. Mary’s County commissioner, said last week in an interview she “certainly was surprised that kind of information” was being given out, and “I don’t know why or how that is possible.”
She mentioned a report that officials in Ventura County, Calif., would remove people from their homes if health officials said they have been in contact with the virus. That report was later clarified by officials to be untrue, but she claimed the government is using COVID-19 as a way to overstep its boundaries.
“These are all privacy issues that I hope people are asking questions about. … We have concerns about what’s happening, what agencies are allowed to do,” she said. “Someone needs to be asking, is there a state or federal law that prevents agencies from doing these things?”
Jones recently sent an email to local elected and appointed officials, questioning whether or not the local department of emergency services has access to cell tower data.
Stephen Walker, director of emergency services for the county, told The Enterprise last Thursday the information they receive comes through the health department, and he can’t “just log in and look at it.”
He said no specific information was available, but the health department was tracking when people were moving around, exclusively to study public health in response to COVID-19.
When asked if the health department was using cell tower data to study residents’ movements during the pandemic, a spokesperson for Dr. Meena Brewster, health officer for the county, said over email they “have been reviewing publicly available records based on aggregate, not personally identifiable data, generated from cell towers and applications, to get trends on mobility at the population level in our county.”
The purpose is to give the department insight into adherence to community disease mitigation strategies, which could help “prepare public health and health care resources for when increased cases or demands may happen following increased mobility,” according to the spokesperson.
It was confirmed the data being reviewed does not identify individual user information nor any demographics that might point to specific subgroups in the county.
The spokesperson claimed the data is being collected through a variety of outside private organizations, which make the aggregate, non-identifiable data publicly available.