New studies published by the Commission’s Joint Research Centre explain the relationship between human mobility and the spread of coronavirus, as well as the effectiveness of mobility restriction measures to contain the pandemic.

Decorative image of a connected Europe and viruses

The findings, based on aggregated and anonymised mobile phone location data, will support policymakers in formulating the best data-driven approaches for ending confinement, mapping the socio-economic effects of lockdown measures and informing early warning systems for potential new outbreaks.

Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, responsible for the Joint Research Centre, said: “Digital technologies and computational social sciences are instrumental in the Commission’s data and evidence-driven crisis response and policy measures to fight the pandemic. I would like to thank mobile operators who provided unique access to their datasets, thereby contributing to the fight against this public health threat.”

Thierry Breton, Commissioner for the Internal Market, added: “The findings of these studies will help Europe prepare different possible scenarios for the future which is vital in the context of reopening travel and businesses. This initiative also shines a positive light on the opportunities offered by Business-to-Government data sharing, especially in times of crisis.”

14 mobile network operators in 19 EU Member States and Norway provided their data to the Joint Research Centre.

Thanks to this public-private cooperation, a systematic analysis of the relationship between human mobility and virus spread was conducted for the first time by JRC scientists, together with a comparative cross-country analysis of the efficiency of containment measures.

The data has provided clear evidence on the impact of mobility on the spread of the virus. It shows that mobility alone can explain the initial spread of the virus in Italy, France and Spain.

The results also show that the containment measures taken by governments and regions, including physical distancing and mobility restrictions, were efficient in limiting the spread of the virus.

Furthermore, the mobility data helped identify mobility patterns and areas, which cross regional or provincial borders. For instance, to reach the closest grocery store or the closest city offering employment possibilities, some Europeans have to cross a regional border. The findings therefore suggest that mobility restrictions should take into account such geographical mobility patterns, rather than be based on administrative areas such as regions or provinces.

It also emerged that when physical distancing measures were put in place, the mobility factor became less important in defining the spread of the virus.

These findings show that in the future, mobility data may support policymakers in formulating the best data-driven approaches for coming out of confinement, mapping the socio-economic effects of the lockdown measures and building future scenarios in case of new outbreaks.

This initiative is part of the plan to support exit strategies through mobile data and apps, as announced in the Commission recommendation in April and follows the favourable letter of the European Data Protection Supervisor.

The initiative is an unprecedented partnership between the public and private sector to fight a public health threat.

In total, 14 Mobile Network Operators in 19 EU Member States – Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden – and Norway have so far provided their data to the JRC.

The three JRC reports published today cover 16 EU Member States (Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden) and Norway.

Background

On 8 April, the Commission adopted a Recommendation to support exit strategies through mobile data and apps. Based on this, Member States, supported by the Commission, release a comprehensive document on a common approach for the use of  mobility data to fight against the coronavirus.

The analysed mobile phone location data is anonymised and aggregated and cannot be used to track individuals. It is handled in accordance with all applicable laws, respecting best practices in data security and with no processing permitted for any further purposes other than fighting the coronavirus pandemic. The data will only be kept as long as the crisis is ongoing, in line with the views of the European Data Protection Supervisor.

Finally, in the context of the Data Strategy for Europe, presented in February 2020, the final report prepared by the Expert Group on Business-to-Government Data Sharing already pointed out the usefulness of private sector data for public interest purposes. The lessons learned in the current exercise can help shape further policy making on Business to Government data sharing in Europe.

JRC reports

How human mobility explains the initial spread of COVID-19

Measuring the impact of COVID-19 confinement measures

Mapping Mobility Functional Areas (MFA) using mobile positioning data to inform COVID-19 policies

For More Information

eHealth network document on mobility data modelling

Recommendation on the use of technology and data to combat and exit from the coronavirus crisis

Letter of the European data protection supervisor

Data Strategy for Europe

Report of the Expert Group on Business-to-Government Data Sharing