COVID-19 is spatial: Ensuring that mobile Big Data is used for social good

Authors: Age Poom, Olle Järv, Matthew Zook and Tuuli Toivonen

We have just published our commentary regarding human mobility, mobile Big Data and the responses to COVID-19 pandemic in the Big Data & Society journal (see also the journal’s blog).

This commentary was motivated by our previous experience with mobile Big Data and recent work on changed human mobility derived from mobile phone data during the COVID-19 outbreak in Finland (e.g. Järv et al. 2020a; Järv etal. 2020b). It also draws from the knowledge and experiences of our peers around the globe.

In short, the mobility restrictions related to COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in the biggest disruption to individual mobilities in modern times. The crisis is clearly spatial in nature, and examining the geographical aspect is important in understanding the broad implications of the pandemic. We can benefit from the avalanche of mobile Big Data that makes it possible to study the spatial effects of the crisis with spatiotemporal detail at the national and global scales. Yet, the current crisis also highlights serious limitations in the readiness to take the advantage of mobile Big Data for social good, at large, regarding technological, administrative and legislative aspects.

Drawing on the Finnish and Estonian experiences, and the practices of global platform companies (e.g. Google) during the early phases of COVID-19 pandemic, we argue that we need to re-evaluate the public-private relationships with mobile Big Data and propose two strategic pathways forward.

First, we call for transparent and sound mobile Big Data products that provide relevant up-to-date longitudinal data on the mobility patterns of dynamic populations.

Second, there is also a need to develop trustworthy platforms for collaborative use of raw individual-level data. Secured and privacy-respectful access to near real-time raw data is needed for developing and testing sound methodologies for the above-mentioned data products. This would help to bridge the Big Data digital divide, enable scientific innovation, and offer necessary flexibility in responding to unanticipated questions on changing locations and mobilities in the case of crises. To be clear, we do not view this as simple to achieve, particularly as we weigh what kind of institution might best fill this role without jeopardizing personal privacy and democracy, or how is “social good” defined and operationalized in practice. However, addressing these issues via public debates and academic discourses will leave us better prepared for the next crisis.

To conclude:

  • We need harmonized and representative data about human mobility for better crisis preparedness and social good in general;
  • Methodological transparency about mobile Big Data products are vital for open societies and capacity building;
  • Access to mobile Big Data to develop feasible methodologies and baseline knowledge for public decision-making is needed before the next crisis occurs;
  • Recognizing the fundamental spatiality of the current COVID-19 crisis and crises more generally is the most relevant of all.

Digital Geography Lab is an interdisciplinary research team focusing on spatial Big Data analytics for fair and sustainable societies. We aim to understand spatial interactions between people, and between people and their environment, from local to global scales.