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.

Notes EM: Fiction vs reality


Tim Wu on my book:

Too much assault and battery creates a more serious problem: wrongful appropriation, as Morozov tends to borrow heavily, without attribution, from those he attacks. His critique of Google and other firms engaged in “algorithmic gatekeeping”is basically taken from Lessig’s first book, “Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace,” in which Lessig argued that technology is necessarily ideological and that choices embodied in code, unlike law, are dangerously insulated from political debate. Morozov presents these ideas as his own and, instead of crediting Lessig, bludgeons him repeatedly. Similarly, Morozov warns readers of the dangers of excessively perfect technologies as if Jonathan Zittrain hadn’t been saying the same thing for the past 10 years. His failure to credit his targets gives the misimpression that Morozov figured it all out himself and that everyone else is an idiot.

What my book actually says:

Alas, Internet-centrism prevents us from grasping many of these issues as clearly as we must. To their credit, Larry Lessig and Jonathan Zittrain have written extensively about digital preemption (and Lessig even touched on the future of civil disobedience). However, both of them, enthralled with the epochalist proclamations of Internet-centrism, seem to operate under the false assumption that digital preemption is mostly a new phenomenon that owes its existence to “the Internet,” e-books, and MP3 files. Code is law—but so are turnstiles. Lessig does note that buildings and architecture can and do regulate, but he makes little effort to explain whether the possible shift to code-based regulation is the product of unique contemporary circumstances or merely the continuation of various long-term trends in criminological thinking.

As Daniel Rosenthal notes in discussing the work of both Lessig and Zittrain, “Academics have sometimes portrayed digital preemption as an unfamiliar and novel prospect… In truth, digital preemption is less of a revolution than an extension of existing regulatory techniques.” In Zittrain’s case, his fascination with “the Internet” and its values of “openness” and “generativity,” as well as his belief that “the Internet” has important lessons to teach us, generates the kind of totalizing discourse that refuses to see that some attempts to work in the technological register might indeed be legitimate and do not necessarily lead to moral depravity.

One of the theoretical frames that I use in my dissertations is path dependency. Specifically, I consider whether early decisions with regards to Internet standards (small, early, decisions) actually lead to systems that are challenging to significantly change after systems relying on those protocols are widely adopted (i.e. big, late, decisions aren’t that influential). Once systems enjoy a network effect and see high levels of sunk capital, do they tend to be maintained even if something new comes along that is theoretically ‘superior’?

I mention this background in path dependency because a lot of the really interesting work in this field was written well before Lessig’s and Zittrain’s popular books (yes: there’s still excellent stuff being written today, but core literature predates Lessig or Zittrain). There’s also a extensive literature in public policy, with one of the more popular works being Tools of Government (1983). Hood, in Tools, that outlines how detectors and effectors work for institutions. Hood’s work, in part,  attends to how built infrastructure is used to facilitate governance; by transforming the world itself into a regulatory field (e.g. turnstiles, bridges and roads that possess particular driving characteristics, and so forth) the world becomes embedded with an aesthetic of regulation. This aesthetic can significantly ‘nudge’ the actions we choose to take. This thematic of ‘regulation by architecture’ is core to Lessig’s and Zittrain’s arguments, though there are no references to the ‘core books or sources’ that really launched some of this work in the academy.

This said, while there are predecessors that Lessig and Zittrain probably ought to have spent more time writing about, such complaints are true of practically any book or work that is designed to be read by the public and policy makers and academics. The real ‘magic’ of Zittrain and Lessig (and Morozov!) is that their works speak to a wide audience: their books are not, i would argue, written just for academics. As a result some of the nuance or specificity you’d expect in a $150 book that’s purchased by the other 10 specialists in your field is missing. And that’s ok.

Morozov’s key complaint, as I understand it, is that really important problems arise from how these authors’ books are perceived as what they are not. In other words, many people will not understand that many of the more populist books on ‘the Internet’ are being written by people with specific political intentions, who want their books to affect very particular public policy issues and that, as a consequence, these books and other writings have to be read as political works instead of ’dispassionate academic works’.* Their writings act as a kind of trojan horse through which particular ways of thinking of the world become ‘naturalized’, and the authors are ‘first’ to write on topics largely because of their skill in writing about the present while avoiding elongated literature reviews on the past.

I can appreciate Morozov’s concerns around language framing issues, and around the (sometimes) sloppy thinking of these authors. And I can appreciate Morozov’s critics who see him as being blunt and often similarly failing to ‘show all of his work’. For the public, however, I hope that they don’t necessarily see the very public conflicts between Morozov and his colleagues as necessarily an academic dispute in public so much as an unmasking and contestation of divergent political conceptions of the Internet and of literature more generally.


* I write this on the basis of having attended conferences with American legal scholars working in this area. Papers and reports are often written with specific members of federal sub-committees, Congressional and Senate assistants, or federal/state justices in mind. In effect, these authors are writing for people in power to change specific laws and policies. As such you should always hunt for what is ‘really going on’ when reading most popular American legal scholarship.

Notes EM: Fiction vs reality