Google location data shows SA becoming a ghost town

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Google’s newly introduced COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports, which provide insights into how well citizens are responding to lockdown regulations across the globe, show SA has seen up to an 80% decrease in foot traffic in some public areas.

Today, SA entered the 11th day of the three-week nation-wide lockdown, which restricts travel, leisure, work, churchgoing and other aspects of life, to combat the spread of the coronavirus, (COVID-19), which has infected 1 655 South Africans, with 11 deaths, by the time of publication.

Google’sCOVID-19 reports aggregate users’ anonymised location data, gathered from mobile phones, to chart movement in 131 countries and regions over several weeks.

They track foot traffic trends by geography, across different categories of places such as retail and recreation, groceries and pharmacies, parks, transit stations, workplaces and residential areas.

Mobility trends for South African restaurants, updated on 2 April, show that cafés, shopping centres, theme parks, museums, libraries and movie theatres indicate a 79% decrease in foot traffic, while local public transport hubs such as buses and train stations indicate the highest decline at 80%.

Places like grocery markets, food warehouses, farmers markets, speciality food shops, drug stores and pharmacies show a 60% decrease.

The tech giant says it calculates these changes using the same kind of aggregated and anonymised data used to show popular times for places in Google Maps.

“These reports were developed to be helpful while adhering to our stringent privacy protocols and protecting people’s privacy,” says Karen DeSalvo, MD, MPH, chief health officer at Google Health.

“We will release these reports globally, initially covering 131 countries and regions. Given the urgent need for this information, where possible, we will also provide insights at the regional level. In the coming weeks, we will work to add additional countries and regions to ensure these reports remain helpful to public health officials across the globe looking to protect people from the spread of COVID-19.”

No personally identifiable information, like an individual’s location, contacts or movement, is made available at any point, according to Google.

These reports will be available for a limited time, so long as public health officials find them useful in their work to stop the spread of COVID-19, it notes.

While the Google reports show the majority of South Africans have been obeying the lockdown regulations, media reports show there have been some defiant locals, with police arresting over 2 200 so far for flouting the law.

About 24 389 law enforcers made up of the South African Police Service, the South African National Defence Force and metro police units have been deployed to enforce the regulations.

Meanwhile, vehicle tracking firm Tracker has garnered insights using vehicle-tracking data and analytics fromresearch group Lightstone to verify whether South Africans are indeed confining themselves to their place of residence by examining vehicle movement before and during the lockdown.

Nationally, South African vehicle activity had already dropped by up to 20% before the lockdown, relative to the corresponding day in early March, according to the report. However, it notes vehicle activity subsequently plummeted by 75% after the announcement of the lockdown, before declining again.

Provincially, Gauteng and the Western Cape demonstrate the highest compliance for staying off the roads, with passenger vehicle activity reducing between 75% and 80% during the first two days of lockdown. The highest compliance from taxis and buses is observed in KwaZulu-Natal, with a 76% reduction in vehicle movement, while the highest reduction in the movement of commercial vehicles is observed in Gauteng at 73%.

“It is great to see that the majority of South African citizens are observing the request to stay at home, with high density areas such as Gauteng and the Western Cape reducing their vehicle movement by between 75% and 80% since the implementation of the lockdown,” says Michael du Preez, executive of product and marketing at Tracker South Africa.

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