Tracking COVID-19 with cell phone data while safeguarding privacy

Researchers led by Caroline Buckee are using cell phone data to study people’s mobility patterns, in order to help control COVID-19—without violating people’s privacy.

Buckee, associate professor of epidemiology and associate director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, created the COVID-19 Mobility Data Network, which includes epidemiologists from universities around the world. The group’s efforts were highlighted in an April 27, 2020 article in the New Yorker.

Scrubbed cell phone data provided by technology companies can show how people move about in their communities. Paired with other metrics such as the number of new infections or death rates, this data can help guide policymakers regarding when and where to implement social distancing measures, according to the article. The data can also be used to trace the movements of people infected with the virus, and those they come into contact with.

The article described both the opportunities and challenges of using cell phone data effectively while ensuring privacy. Buckee described her work as “absolutely exhausting, often quite emotional, and completely all-consuming. I go to sleep thinking about COVID-19. I wake up thinking about COVID-19. It’s the same for everyone I know working on this.”

Read the New Yorker article: Can we track COVID-19 and protect privacy at the same time?