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COVID-19 Information

Tracking Mobility to Fight a Pandemic

Researchers Give COVID-19 Planning a Big Data Boost

By Robert Herschbach

Aerial view of cars on road

Photo by iStock

Mobility information derived from smartphones, GPS devices, sensors along roads and other sources—tens of billions of data records per day across the nation—can play a key role in pandemic planning and policy, say researchers in UMD's Maryland Transportation Institute. 

Travel around Maryland plummeted 19% in the days after the state implemented the first pandemic-related restrictions, according to early numbers gathered by UMD engineering researchers.

But interestingly, heavy commercial vehicle volumes increased by as much as 14% immediately following the restrictions, perhaps due to increasing demand as businesses and families stocked up on food and essential supplies.

Those numbers from UMD’s Maryland Transportation Institute (MTI) and its Center for Advanced Transportation Technology (CATT) Lab aren’t just interesting trivia. As the world seeks to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, mobility information derived from smartphones, GPS devices, sensors along roads and other sources—tens of billions of data records per day across the nation—can play a key role in pandemic planning and policy. 

Such “big data” can convey the movement of people, cars, and trucks across the nation and in each community, provide help in making tough decisions on social distancing measures and optimize economic stimulus measures in order to protect life and save the economy, said MTI’s director, Herbert Rabin Distinguished Professor Lei Zhang. 

Among other work, MTI researchers are fusing many data sources to analyze human mobility behavior under COVID-19 restrictions and quarantines, with the aim of both determining how effective such measures have been in various locations, and predicting new outbreak locations based on observed travel to and from high-infection areas.  

“Analyzing these patterns can help pinpoint vectors for the spread of the virus,” Zhang said. “We hope our research can help decision-makers decide, with scientific evidence, when and how to eventually remove social distancing mandates so the economy can recover as soon as possible.” 

MTI is part of an international data collaborative, comprising more than a dozen universities, nonprofits and data providers, that has formed with the goal of studying the effects of COVID-19 and the effectiveness of public response efforts using big data. Researchers involved in the initiative include experts in transportation and travel behavior, epidemiology, applied mathematics, and big data analytics and visualization. 

In addition to tracking travel behavior, MTI is also using data to monitor how communities and businesses are negatively impacted by COVID-19 based on changing visits to restaurants, shopping malls, gyms and other businesses around the country, Zhang said. 

“Governments at all levels may use the results to target stimulus funds and loans to areas that are hit the worst by the pandemic,” Zhang said. “We are working with several top economists and data scientists at UMD on this important topic.” 

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