Big tech and coronavirus: How Google and Facebook could take on the pandemic © Getty Images

Big tech and coronavirus: How Google and Facebook could take on the pandemic

Google and Facebook could use the data they collect to track how coronavirus spreads.

Both Google and Facebook are reported to be talking with governments about how to use the location data they collect from our phones to help track spread of coronavirus across the UK, US, and presumably other countries too.

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If you’ve never checked your privacy settings on Google or Facebook, then the chances are that both are gathering large amounts of surprisingly accurate data on your movements. Taken across a population, this information can paint an unprecedented picture of how people are gathering and moving, and therefore how the virus might be spreading.

The work is in its early stages, according to an anonymous source speaking to The Washington Post [paywall]. Both companies have confirmed they’ve spoken with government officials but stress they haven’t handed over any private data.

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Governments are becoming increasingly desperate to slow the spread before it overwhelms hospitals. And this tool could let officials interrogate whether the public is observing the social distancing guidelines suggested to stem the outbreak.

The big tech companies want to anonymise the data before analysing trends that might emerge. And Google is already investigating whether data gathered from Google Maps could provide insights in the same way it already does to tell users when a shop or restaurant’s peak hours are.

In the UK, the mobile phone network O2 is already working with the government to see whether they could use mobile data to generate heat maps, which could reveal whether people really are social distancing.

Meanwhile, the travel planning app Citymapper has added a mobility index feature which takes the data it collects to analyse how much the people in a city is moving compared to usual. On Saturday 21 March, London users were moving at 23 per cent of the usual rate, while Italian cities like Milan were hovering around the 4 per cent mark.

Critics of this kind of data-sharing are asking for more transparency on how the data is being anonymised.

Meanwhile, WhatsApp, the messaging app, is in talks with the NHS to set up a chatbot that will help people get basic information about the pandemic. This follows a similar service set up by the WHO.

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Elsewhere in the world tech’s being used in increasingly inventive ways to encourage us to stay home. A security company in Austin, Texas, which says it can train thermal cameras to spot people with fevers at supermarkets, hospitals and government buildings.

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In Spain, police have turned to drones to help them yell at people still on the streets after government advice to stay home. The country is now officially on lockdown.