Philly’s coronavirus response

Philly social distancing map: 50% less movement, data company says

Smartphone GPS data gives an idea of how well people are following lockdown rules.

Mark Henninger / Unacast

Congratulations, Philly. Looks like you’re actually trying to do this whole social distancing thing. The country as a whole doesn’t seem to be doing too badly, either.

According to data from Unacast, a Norway-based “human mobility” data company, more people are staying put as reports of COVID-19 cases skyrocket nationwide.

Called the Social Distancing Scoreboard, data on an interactive map grades the entire country, states and individual counties from A to F. The ranking is based largely on residents’ mobility, or their average distance traveled. The company also looked at whether people are inside or outside their homes, and whether or not people are hanging out in groups.

Philadelphia has an A grade right now. City residents have moved around an average of 52% less since the company started tracking data on Feb. 28.

The data does lag slightly behind real time. As of publication, the numbers are updated through Mar. 21. There were 85 COVID-19 cases in Philly by the end of that day. By Mar. 24, the city had recorded 252 cases.

Even so, the map provides an interesting glimpse into how the American public is responding to the surging pandemic. It shows that as reports of COVID-19 cases increase, our mobility decreases — just like public health officials are hoping.

The 'Social Distancing Scoreboard' for Pennsylvania

The 'Social Distancing Scoreboard' for Pennsylvania


How Philly compares to surrounding counties

Unacast is mostly using geolocation data from people’s phones to create this map. It’s kind of creepy, but could prove useful when this devastating pandemic ends and nations look back to evaluate their responses.

Relying on data from smart devices leaves room for obvious flaws. In a city like Philadelphia, for example, not everyone possesses a device that has geolocation capabilities.

But in relative terms, Philly is beating its neighbor across the water by just a bit. Camden has an A grade for social distancing, but with a 49% decrease in movement compared to Philly’s 52% drop. Camden has recorded 59 positive cases so far.

Meanwhile, residents Montgomery County, which logged Pa.’s first coronavirus case and now has 172 cases, traveled an average of 56% less than normal.

Chester and Delco, both saw a 55% travel decrease. The counties have recorded 54 and 101 COVID-19 cases, respectively. In Gloucester County, NJ where there have been 19 COVID-19 cases, residents moved around about 43% less than when this data mining first began at the end of Feb.

How this company tracks your movement

Unacast found the most efficient way to map social distancing was to measure each person’s average distance traveled, because it receives the highest number of signals when people are moving.

If residents in a city aren’t traveling for work, or to restaurants, or back and forth to friends’ homes, for example, our average mobility decreases. Unacast’s map assumes that this travel decrease means our social distancing is increasing.

The tech company said there seems to be a correlation. American residents’ average travel distance has declined steadily since the Bay Area, Calif. issued a shelter-in-place order on Mar. 16.

Philly’s average travel has declined steadily since Mar. 18, the day the first COVID-19 patient in Pa. died.

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s coronavirus response stories.

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