Smartphone Location Data Suggests State, Story County Could Do More to Limit Coronavirus Spread

Screenshot via Unacast

Update, 4/5: Since this article was published, Unacast has downgraded Iowa’s rating from a C to an F. Story County’s rating has dropped from a D to a D-. Despite increasing pressure on Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds — including in a Friday recommendation from the Iowa Board of Medicine and an editorial Saturday in the Washington Post — to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order, Iowa remains one of just nine states without such an order. Iowa is one of just five states that has no shelter-in-place orders anywhere in the state; Reynolds has said that municipalities do not have the authority to issue local orders, an opinion supported by Democratic Attorney General Tom Miller.

In an op-ed published Saturday in the Des Moines Register, Iowa State University economics professor and former Ames City Council member Peter Orazem argued that Unacast’s metrics do not accurately assess compliance with social distancing measures because of the differences in population densities between states. Unacast has updated its methodology since this post was originally published and has explained how it attempts to account for these differences. Google has also released similar data analyzing reductions in distance traveled since the coronavirus pandemic broke out.

Original post: As Gov. Kim Reynolds faces increasing pressure to announce a shelter-in-place directive, residents across the state could be more proactive in isolating themselves to limit the spread of the new COVID-19 virus, according to a “social distancing scoreboard” developed by the tech startup Unacast that analyzes smartphone app data to estimate the extent to which Americans are reducing their travel.

The project gained wider exposure Tuesday thanks to Washington Post technology columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler. “Unacast’s location data comes from games, shopping and utility apps that tens of millions of Americans have installed on their phones — information the company normally analyzes for retailers, real estate firms and marketers,” he reported. “It’s part of a shadowy world of location tracking that consumers often have little idea is going on.”

Unacast’s scoreboard gives states and counties letter-grade ratings based on how greatly the data suggests residents have limited their travel over time as the COVID-19, or coronavirus, pandemic ramps up across the US and the governors of states including Iowa have ordered restaurants, bars, and in some cases other businesses to close, among other precautionary measures.

As of March 21, Iowa was receiving a C grade, indicating that residents had reduced their distance traveled by 20 to 30 percent since the time before the virus began to interrupt daily life. Story County scored even lower with a D, the data suggesting that local residents had only reduced their travel distance by 18 percent.

By Tuesday — three days later — Reynolds continued to stand by her position that a shelter-in-place directive urging Iowans to stay indoors and mandating the closure of non-essential businesses was unnecessary, despite calls from mayors Frank Cownie of Des Moines and Bruce Teague of Iowa City, for the bolder action. So far, 17 states, 26 counties, and 10 cities have shelter-in-place directives affecting a combined 175 million people. All but two of those states scored higher by percentage of travel distance reduced than Iowa on the Unacast scorecard.

“It’s important to understand that sheltering in place for two or three weeks will not cause the coronavirus to go away,” said Sarah Reisetter, deputy director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, at the governor’s daily press conference. “That’s because this virus is circulating around the world and can be reintroduced into communities from different places.” Although true, research shows that taking strong early action is key to “flattening the curve” and limiting the exponential spread of emerging infectious diseases.

Reynolds herself at the conferences has contradicted the advice of health professionals, advising Iowans who are sick to stay home while glossing over the fact that many of those who contract COVID-19 are believed to be asymptomatic or only exhibit minor symptoms, increasing the likelihood they will unwittingly spread the virus.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, the Iowa Department of Public Health confirmed the state’s first COVID-19 death — a resident of eastern Dubuque County between the ages of 61 and 80 (the county had a high B on Unacast’s scorecard). The department also reported 19 new positive tests, including a second in Story County, increasing the overall tally to 124 confirmed cases of the virus spanning 30 of the state’s 99 counties.

At least two Ames residents have contacted Mayor John Haila in recent days, urging him to follow the lead of cities that have issued local shelter-in-place directives. One described seeing kids still frequenting the city’s outdoor skate park, shoppers out and about, and Iowa State University students returning from spring break for classes that are now online-only. But for now, Haila is following the governor’s lead.

Unacast was initially vague about the specific methodology used for its COVID-19 scorecard, but the company’s broader strategy is to provide an accessible alternative to the massive, proprietary location datasets compiled by Google and Facebook. Founded in Norway, the company is now headquartered in New York and in February announced it had raised $17.5 million from investors to expand its business operations in the US and Europe.

The US government itself is reportedly in talks with Google, Facebook, and other tech companies to use their anonymous location data for similar coronavirus-tracking purposes.

Correction: Previously, this article mistakenly said that Des Moines and Iowa City were the state’s two largest cities instead of two of the largest cities. Iowa City is the state’s fifth-largest city.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.