The Failure to Frame Covid-19 Mobility Data

(Photo by Gabriel Meinert on Unsplash)

For the past year, the Toronto Star has repeatedly run articles that take mobility data from mobile device advertisers, to then assess the extent to which Torontonians are moving too much. Reporting has routinely shown how people are moving more or less frequently, with articles often suggesting that people are moving too much when they’re supposed to be staying put.

The problem? The ways in which ‘too much’ is assessed runs contrary to public health advice and lacks sufficient nuance to inform the public. In the most recent reporting, we find that:

Between Jan. 18 and Feb. 28, average mobility across Ontario increased from 58 per cent to 65 per cent, according to the marketing firm Environics Analytics. Environics defines mobility as a percentage of residents 15 or older who travelled 500 metres or more beyond their home postal code.

To be clear: in Ontario the provincial and local public health leaders have strongly stated that people should get outside and exercise. That can involve walking or other outdoor activities. Those activities are not supposed to be restricted to 500 metres from your home, which was advice that was largely provided in more restrictive lockdowns in European countries. And we know that mobility data is often higher in areas with higher percentages of BIPOC residents because they tend to have lower-paying jobs and must travel further to reach their places of employment.

As has become the norm, the fact that people have moved around more frequently as (admittedly ineffective) restrictions have been raised, and that people are ‘region hopping’ by going from more restricted zones to less restricted ones, is being tightly associated with personal or individual failures. From a quoted expert, we find that:

“It shows that once things start to open, people just seem to do whatever, and that’s a recipe for disaster.”

I would suggest that what we are seeing is a pent up, pretty normal, human response: the provincial government has behaved erratically and you have some people racing around to get stuff done before returning to another (ineffective) set of restrictions, and a related set of people who believe that if the government is letting them move around then things must be comparatively safer. To put it another way, in the former case you have people behaving rationally (if, in some eyes, selfishly) whereas in the latter you have a failure by government to solve a collective action problem by downloading responsibility to individuals. In both cases you are seeing an uptick in behaviour which is suggestive that they believe it’s safer to do things, now, than weren’t before when the government assumed some responsibility and signalled that moving was less safe and actively discouraged it by keeping businesses and other ‘fun’ things shut down.

Throughout the pandemic response in Ontario, what has been evident is that the provincial government simply cannot develop and implement effective policies to mitigate the spread of the pandemic. The result of muddling through things has been that the public, and especially small business, has suffered extraordinarily whilst the gains have been meagre. The lack of paid sick leave, as an example, has seriously stymied the ability of lower-income workers to actually keep themselves apart from others while they wait for diagnoses and, if positive, recover from their infections.

To be fair, the Toronto Star and other outlets have covered paid sick leave issues, along with lots of other failures by the provincial government in its handling of the pandemic. And there is certainly some obligation on individuals to best adhere to public health advice. But we’ve long known these are collective action problems: there is a need to move beyond downloading responsibility to individuals and for governments to behave effectively, coherently, and accountably throughout major crises. The provincial government has failed, and continues to fail, on every one of these measures to the effect that individuals are responding to the past, present, and expected future actions of the government: more unpredictability and more restrictions on their daily lives as a result of government ineptitude.

Whereas the journalists could have cast what Ontarians are doing as a semi-natural response to the aforementioned government failings, instead those individuals are being castigated. We shouldn’t be blaming the victims of the pandemic, but I guess that’s what happens when assessing mobility data.