Facebook location data useful in COVID tracking » Stuff


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Facebook knows all. Or at least, more than you probably think it does. Perhaps Facebook’s power can be used for the good of humankind for once, and we’re here for it. 

According to recent studies, authorities and health officials can use anonymised data from the social media platform to track the spread of COVID-19 and monitor where people have travelled. Researchers based in Australia at the University of Melbourne found that Facebook data could help predict the spread of coronavirus outbreaks. 

Facebook’s the… good guy?

This could be especially effective when authorities don’t know about the rapid spread of the virus in a specified location. The study, published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface this week, analysed anonymised (meaning: data not tied to personal information) population mobility data provided by Facebook as part of its Data for Good program. Through a range of tests, it found that this may be a fairly useful predictor in determining the spread of outbreaks, specifically looking at people’s daily commute and travel.

Although useful in theory, the researchers found that the data couldn’t have helped predict the size of an outbreak or whether an immediate lockdown would’ve helped. “Looking at mobility information like this can give you some kind of a decent idea. There’s definitely a signal there. It’s not going to give you everything you want,” researcher Cameron Zachreson said to Guardian Australia.

But it could prove handy. According to Zachreson, governments could use the data to determine potential local hotspots according to past data, instead of focusing on whole cities or provinces. “It can give you a less arbitrary determination for where the high-risk zones are,” he said.

There’s also no way for government or health officials to track an individual using the data, as they would receive it from Facebook already anonymised. This may be a far more practical approach to COVID-19 tracking, as most of the population’s humans are already using Facebook as a social media platform. Considering one of the main issues with the COVID Alert SA app is population penetration and accessibility, this could be the pot of gold (data) we need. 


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