Facebook’s anonymous data on user mobility and circulation could be used to identify the spread of covid-19 in places where health officials are still unaware, a new Australian study published on Wednesday revealed. Journal of the Royal Society Interface.
A group of researchers at the University of Melbourne, Australia, analyzed anonymous population mobility data provided by Facebook as part of the ‘Data for Good’ program to determine whether they could predict and be useful in determining the spread of outbreaks, based on places where people move.
The investigation looked at three outbreaks in Australia: the Cedar Meats outbreak in western Melbourne, the second biggest wave in Victoria, and the outbreak of the Crossroads Hotel in New South Wales.
The investigation looked at places where people had predictable and periodic movements, such as commuting, which provided useful indicators of the spread of the virus. In the case studies, the data were more useful in predicting the spread of the virus in the Cedar Meats outbreak than in the outbreak of the Crossroads Hotel, as the latter had less predictable movements.
When it came to analyzing Victoria’s second wave, which began with the confinement of the suburbs in late June and early July, the analysis found mobility data that could have alerted the government that the spread had already passed the initially confined areas .
Still, the principal investigator at the University of Melbourne, Cameron Zachreson, told the The Guardian Australia that it was too difficult to say whether the data could have changed the government’s decision-making process in closing Melbourne during the second wave.
“Looking at data on mobility, as in these cases, can give governments a solid idea of how and where to act. There is definitely a signal in the data ”, stressed the researcher.
“There will be places of high risk that, incidentally, are not in the data, as in the case of the Crossroads outbreak. This is because these people have traveled a long way on a trip that they would not normally do. And this is the kind of thing that the aggregate mobility patterns we have do not capture well, ”he said.
The investigator also said that the data could also be used by governments to determine where to state potential hot spots, rather than focusing on arbitrary areas of local government, or entire cities.
The study finally points out that the data would not allow researchers to identify someone, since they are anonymous. In addition, governments would also not be able to access data from unprocessed researchers, which means that, likewise, they would not be able to identify people.