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Spain prepares a pioneering project with mobile data to trace the movement of the coronavirus

City of Arts and Sciences of Valencia, vacated during the fourth day of the state of alarm by coronavirus Credit: Europa Press

The Valencian Community has been preparing a project with mobile data for at least a week to better understand the situation of the


in its territory. The priority objectives of the local authorities are at least three:

know how movement restrictions are met

, search

hot spots

to better allocate resources and

better understand mobility

of the population and therefore of the virus throughout the period. The data is anonymous and aggregated and will come from operators, who are in charge of processing it.

"The actual mobility data can be very important for our epidemiological models, knowing that in the Valencian Community we are in a territory characterized by high mobility, especially in recent days," explains Ana Berenguer, director of Analysis and Public Policies of Presidency of the Valencian Generalitat. "We have seen especially in the weekend an acceleration in the number of infected and our hypothesis is that it is linked to high mobility from outside the Community," he adds.

In addition to clarifying the origin, the mobility data is basic to check now how much mobility has been reduced.

The World Health Organization recommends a drastic decrease in mobility

 and the reduction of contacts by 75% to make it significant in stopping the pandemic. The data would also make it possible to check where there are still agglomerations of individuals to limit the sources of contagion or hot spots.

The National Statistics Institute launched a similar project a few months ago to understand how Spaniards move. The data was collected for cells of at least 5,000 people.

The decision sparked a misunderstanding about privacy

. Now Valencia takes up and locally promotes this idea with a much more concentrated objective. This information is not individual nor does it depend on tracking the movement and contacts of each person who has tested positive, as has happened with apps from some Asian countries.

Italy, Germany and Austria have started with operators such as Deutsche Telekom, Telecom Italia, Vodafone or A1 Telekom Austria to use similar services. In Spain, Álvarez Pallete, Telefonica's executive president, wrote last week: "We have made our services and capacities available to Public Administrations and health institutions to help contribute to efforts to contain the outbreak: Big Data capacities and management of anonymized and aggregated data of our network, mobility data ". Until now, no particular initiative had transpired: "No project has yet been finalized," company sources said Thursday.

For years, data scientists have called for a reasonable and consensual use of this aggregated data to aid in public policy decisions. "We are in 2020, we are facing this pandemic and we are not taking advantage of the amount of data that exists on human behavior," says Nuria Oliver, data scientist, head of the Data-Pop Alliance and promoter of the Valencian project.

A personal impulse

"I started moving last week. I couldn't take it anymore, I just felt like I should try," Oliver explains. "Contact with the national administration and the Valencian Government, with former researchers and with colleagues in telecommunications companies,

I wrote an article for EL PAS

"he adds.

As in the case of the coronavirus app, private initiative and a good reception in a public administration has led to progress. Oliver found a very receptive approach in Valencia: "From the Generalitat, an interdepartmental effort has been made to promote data analysis and support decision-making that is so fundamental in the coming weeks," explains Berenguer. The project is part of an artificial intelligence plan promoted by the regional government. In regions like the Valencian Community, which are so dependent on tourism, a full summer break would be devastating.

Good reception in data projects is not so common in public administration. Companies that have such data have often not found in the authorities partners with the ability and the desire to create stable agreements. The alleged lack of resources and the fear of complaints about lack of privacy – reasonable in other cases – have caused these solutions to run aground over and over again. Now the day has come when this data helps save lives and few know who to call. The coronavirus can be a milestone in the use of so-called big data from governments at all levels.

What are destination origin mobility matrices that can help so much? They make an estimate of mobility flows between different municipalities, provinces, autonomous communities or countries. "This is important because an infectious disease does not spread if people do not move. Knowing where people move is valuable in knowing how and where it spreads," Oliver explains.

"If you already have a model made, you can do simulations and scenarios based on different population containment strategies: what would happen if the mobility of the population is reduced by a certain percentage and you see if there are still too many infected or not," he explains.

In a previous work in Mexico on influenza A, Oliver found that the recommendations to the population are useless. The only method now is for people to stay at home. "Recommendations are the most useless thing to do. Everyone thinks they are for their neighbor, not for them. We all think that we have more important reasons, that our life is more important, that we are not going to get it. What works they are compulsory and monitored interventions, "says Oliver. "Now the only recourse is for people to stay home," he adds.