The next time you open Google Maps, you may be able to find something else. There might be a “COVID layer” when you pull up the popular mapping app on your smartphone. No, it shouldn’t be an layer of the actual virus, the Covid-19 coronavirus, on your screen. That would not be safe.
Instead, when you open up a map of the area that you are interested in, you may have the option of overlaying seven-day averages of new Covid-19 coronavirus cases per 100,000 people. Alison Durkee described previously for Forbes some of the features of this new layer, including color-coding to show the density of new cases in different areas.
Sujoy Banerjee, a Product Manager for Google Maps, posted a Google blog entitled, “Navigate safely with new Covid data in Google Maps.” According to Banerjee, to get this overlay, you will be able to “tap on the layers button on the top right hand corner of your screen and click on ‘COVID-19 info’.” There will also be labels showing whether cases are trending up or down. The blog portrayed this new feature as “a tool that shows critical information about COVID-19 cases in an area so you can make more informed decisions about where to go and what to do.” Just make sure that you aren’t using the “Beauty supplies” layer and mistaking it for the Covid layer.
“Navigate safely” may be a bit of an overstatement. A Covid-19 coronavirus layer, in theory, sounds good. Indeed, it would be quite helpful to have an app that could show precisely where Covid-19 coronavirus cases were going up and down. This would allow you to avoid those places with high severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV2) activity. Businesses would be able to open and close accordingly. Right now a lot of decision making on what schools, businesses, and other things to open where has been like cats playing craps, a bit haphazard.
Ah, but theory does not always match practice. The problem has been and continues to be the data. Banerjee indicated that the “data featured in the COVID layer comes from multiple authoritative sources, including Johns Hopkins, the New York Times, and Wikipedia.” Wikipedia may be great if you want to find out which member of One Direction is “the cute one”, “the quiet and mysterious one”, and “the charming one.” But Wikipedia’s Covid-19 coronavirus “data” will depend on who happens to log on to Wikipedia and enter the information onto the corresponding page. Similarly, sources like the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center web site are really just collating information from other sources like the World Health Organization (WHO) and national, state, and local governments.
Therefore, in the U.S., the accuracy of the Covid-19 overlay will be completely dependent on what kind of Covid-19 coronavirus data is being reported where. And such reporting right now is all over the map, or rather, it is definitely not all over the map. Instead, it’s been more like spaghetti sauce on a bib when you are launching meatballs from 50 feet away.
In the U.S., public health has long been “the neglected one” when it comes to where funding and resources go, and now during the pandemic our society is paying the price. Some large municipalities like New York City may have more extensive health departments. But even they suffer from chronic shortages in money and personnel. Imagine the situation in smaller cities and towns. If you think many public health departments are equipped to gather, collate, and transmit Covid-19 coronavirus information, spend some time in different health departments across the country. For many, the coolest new communications technology may very well be something called the FAX machine.
Plus, identifying Covid-19 cases depends on testing. It’s not enough to know just the sheer number of test being done. That doesn’t give much insight on how well a testing program is going. That would be like relying primarily on the number of hot dogs used as the measure of how a restaurant is doing. You’ve got to know where and how often testing is being done and on whom. Do you have any idea of how many people in a given neighborhood have been tested and how frequently? Without knowing this information, it is really difficult to determine the accuracy of any Covid-19 case reporting. It would be like seeing a map of people who have read the book Fifty Shades of Grey. You would be relying on the people who admit that they have read the book, which may grossly underestimate the number of people who actually have read it.
Moreover, there will be reporting delays. Once you get tested for Covid-19, the results have to somehow make their way through to the proper public health authorities. If you think all organizations are efficient and report things rapidly and effectively, consider the following three letters: DMV. Mix that with OMG as well as WTH and you’ll get a sense of how well the public health reporting system works.
Finally, keep in mind the granularity of the data. For example, if Covid-19 coronavirus data is being reported at a county level, it won’t be able to tell you much about which specific streets, parks, or even towns to be careful about or avoid. That would be like using county data to determine if you should date a specific person (e.g., “hmm, people seem to get married a lot in this county, so I’ll overlook the fact that this person mentioned the word “stable” in his or her dating profile ten times.”)
The concern then is that people may believe the Google Maps data to be better than it really is. This new Covid-19 layer can tell you in general when a a location has a lot of Covid-19 cases. So if the map says that an area is a bleep-storm, it probably is.
But don’t rely on the layer to tell you the opposite, which locations may be “safe.” Just because a place looks relatively clear shouldn’t give you reassurances that you can be more lax in terms of social distancing, mask use, or re-opening a business.
Remember, this new Google Map layer will be a bit like a dating profile. It can give you a warning about something alarming like a high number of reported Covid-19 cases or an excessive number of marmots in their house. However, even if the person doesn’t mention marmots, don’t be confident that marmots aren’t around. It also won’t tell you how many Covid-19 cases is “too many” just like a dating profile won’t tell you how many marmots is excessive.
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