UW-Madison researchers map travel data to combat pandemic

MADISON, Wis. – Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, a team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is using a tool to estimate just how much people have cut back on travel, which is data that can be used to inform the response to the virus.

While many people’s lives have slowed down, Assistant Geography Professor Song Gao is busy leading the team in hopes its work will make a difference.

“As a researcher, as a scholar, as a human being, we definitely hope to do something helpful, useful to save lives,” Gao said. “I’m from China … Globally we have friends, family overseas. This is why for myself, I keep watching what is happening and also thinking about how our research can help to combat the pandemic.”

He’s collaborating with other researchers to map out, county by county across the nation, the mobility of people over time using anonymous data from hundreds of thousands of cell phones.

Gao said this data can be used as an estimation of mobility to be used with prediction models in areas including virus spread, deaths and hospital bed needs. It can also show how stay at home messages are working

“For many in Wisconsin, we actively follow the social distancing guidelines, because there was a significant drop in the daily travel distance and (an) increase of the time at home,” Gao said. “We can immediately see that in our mapping tool.”

In Dane County, the tool shows that the daily median travel distance has dropped from anywhere between about 3 to 7 kilometers at the beginning of March to nearly 0 in the past several weeks.

The tool also shows an increase of movement on Election Day in certain counties, including Rock County, which went from 2 kilometers the day before to about 2.7 kilometers last Tuesday. Gao said a rise in cases from in-person voting is a concern, which is being monitored by health officials.

The model can’t track who has been in contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19.

“We do not have such private data, because we really have a lot of society concerns about individual privacy,” Gao said, adding that other countries don’t have the same level of concern.

The mapping tool has data going back to March 1. The interactive website can be found here.

“We’ll continue working on this and hopefully combat the virus soon,” Gao said.