Coronavirus: Google releases UAE location data to show that people are staying home


Movement across the UAE has decreased amid stay-at-home orders

Google is tracing billions of phones worldwide, using location data, to determine how effective government issued stay-at-home orders have been.

This week, the US company published reports for 131 countries, which revealed how millions of people have been moving through their cities amid the pandemic.

It is the largest public data set available to the public that shows if people are abiding by government orders to remain indoors.

The data indicates an unsurprising decrease in visits to shops, parks and workplaces, throughout March, when many governments began ordering people to stay home to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

The movement of UAE residents decreased in all of the broad categories listed. The only increase was expectedly found in residences, with Google’s data indicating there was a 26 per cent increase in people staying at home.

Transit stations saw the largest decrease in movement at 69 per cent, including public transport hubs such as the metro, bus, and tram stations.

The transit decrease is expected to continue falling as the data was collected before the government ordered buses, on March 29, to not exceed 25 per cent capacity and told employers to consider organising private transport for workers.

Travel to workplaces in the UAE fell by 45 per cent.

On March 12, Abu Dhabi and Dubai governments began allowing their employees to work remotely, prompting some local businesses to follow suit.

But the data does not reflect more stringent transport and remote work policies that began on March 29, when almost all public and private sector employees were told they must work from home.

The new nationwide remote work policy states staff can work from the office but this cannot exceed 30 per cent of the total number of employees. Essential businesses were exempt from the order, including supermarkets, pharmacies, and workers in the health, energy and education sector among others.

Visits to recreational areas such as malls, cafes and restaurants or theme parks fell 55 per cent. The decrease is aided by the government ordered closure of malls on March 25 for a two-week period. However, supermarkets in malls remain open.

Meanwhile, visits to parks, beaches and marinas dropped 53 per cent in the UAE. On March 22, all beaches, parks, and swimming pools in the country closed temporarily, but some public walking areas, such as Abu Dhabi’s Corniche, remain open.

Supermarkets and pharmacies, which were deemed essential, have remained open and saw the smallest decline, with visits falling 26 per cent.

The reports determined a baseline of movement using the median from a five-week period earlier in the year, January 3 to February 6, then Google compared that data against location data collected from February 16 to March 29.

Newly implemented policies can be expected to further decrease movement.

The UAE’s data can be compared against other countries, such as Italy, one of the countries hardest hit by the virus, which saw some of the sharpest declines.

Visits to retail and recreational locations in Italy plunged 94 per cent while visits to workplaces slid 63 per cent. Reflecting the severity of the crisis there, supermarket and pharmacy visits dropped 85 per cent and park visits were down by 90 per cent.

The data also underscore some challenges authorities have faced in keeping people apart. Supermarket visits surged in Singapore, the UK and elsewhere as travel restrictions were set to come into force.

The location data was obtained by Google through smartphones, which are automatically set to opt-in to location tracking services. To opt-out, users can navigate to the location history section of their Google account and turn off location history.

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