How Apple and Google's Social Distancing Maps Work

You're probably aware that your phone tracks your location. It's how Google can tell you which restaurants are nearby, and how Facebook can tag the bar you're in, and Apple can tell you where you left your iPhone if you've misplaced it. Now Apple and Google are turning that mass of data into a tool to track just how strictly people are sheltering in place around the globe during the Covid-19 pandemic.Apple's version launched a few days ago; you can see it here. Google had a head start by several weeks, and you can see its take here. They're both similar in their approach and their aims: Use mapping data gathered from phones to see how much less people are traveling in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Apple Mobility Trends Report

Courtesy of David Nield via Apple
Apple's portal, which it calls the Mobility Trends Reports, is the more straightforward of the two to use, pulling in anonymized data from routing requests. In other words, it counts how many times people request driving, walking, or transit directions during a day, and then plots the number of those requests on a chart.When you first load up the page you'll see this data aggregated by country. Germany's routing requests through Apple Maps are down by 37 percent from baseline at the time of writing, for example. The United States is down by the same margin.

Look back to the middle of January, and you'll see how this compares to normal life, with spikes during the day and the week as people move from place to place. As more localities impose Covid-19 lockdowns, the numbers start to drop. A steeper line means a more drastic lockdown, or at least closer adherence to those orders.

Using the search box up at the top of the chart you can look up statistics for particular parts of the world and the US: Try typing in a city or a country, for example. Apple splits up each region's data by walking, driving, and public transit directions for countries where Apple Maps provides it. You can see far more dramatic drops in countries like Singapore, which put in strong restrictions early, than Sweden, which has taken a more relaxed stance toward social distancing.

The statistics are intriguing, but bear in mind they only tell a part of the overall picture. People on foot may not typically need directions as much as people in cars, for example. There are also seasonal differences to account for, as people all tend to spend more time indoors during January and February anyway, at least in the parts of the world where those months count as winter.