Phone data help Chilean researchers to understand movements during lockdowns and quarantines

Phone data help Chilean researchers to understand movements during lockdowns and quarantines
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In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the major challenges that researchers and policymakers faced was the lack of timely data on human mobility. The virus was spreading rapidly, and it was crucial to have a real-time understanding of how people were moving around in order to track and contain the outbreak. Unfortunately, at that time, there were few sources of mobility data and analytics available, especially in Latin America, leaving researchers with a critical data and knowledge gap. The representation of Latin America in the international research ecosystem is a complex issue that involves challenges related to funding, infrastructure, language, and bias, but the main effect is that it heavily impacts the use of science for decision making, since many leading international groups prioritize research topics that are of greater interest to the developed countries they are located, which further limits the research agenda and research impact in the region.

Recognizing the urgent need for this data and for trustworthy analyses, a team of researchers at the Institute of Data Science at Universidad del Desarrollo and a Chilean Telco decided to leverage their long-standing collaboration and provide anonymized mobility data by means of eXtended Detail Records for all of Chile with just a one-day delay. This initiative was a significant milestone, as it marked the first-ever publication of mobility data generated in Latin America, making it available to researchers, policymakers, and the public. In the early stages of the project, CISCO also became involved and helped in several critical areas.

Chilean (Faculty of Engineering, UDD) and Italian (ISI Foundation and CNR) researchers subsequently analyzed the data and generated a comprehensive Mobility Index, which provided insights into how people were moving around in all the regions of Chile. The Mobility Index (IM as per its Spanish acronym) was published twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays for almost a year and a half. Anyone can still access the historical mobility reports on the IDS/UDD website.

The publication of this data was groundbreaking, as it allowed for a better understanding of how the pandemic was affecting mobility patterns in the region, and it provided valuable insights into the effectiveness of lockdowns and other mitigation measures. The IM provided an equal or better measure of mobility than current international metrics like Google or Apple Mobility Reports. On the one hand, the baseline chosen for those metrics didn't reflect the Latin American calendar (for example, the baseline for Apple was calculated for a day in January, which is summer, and many people are on holidays, while it's winter and a school period in the US). On the other hand, these metrics were done at a larger aggregation (the regional level, there are 16 regions in Chile), while the IM was calculated at a finer granularity (the "commune", of which there are 346).

The Chilean mobility metrics was first contributed to an excellent resource of COVID information for Chile, a github repository containing a wealth of relevant information in machine-readable form curated and made publicly available by the Chilean government since almost the beginning of the pandemic. The IDS/UDD/Telefónica/CISCO Mobility Index became an important resource for policymakers, researchers, and journalists alike, helping to shed light on the complex and rapidly evolving dynamics of the pandemic and informing the application of non-pharmaceutical interventions like quarantines.

The IDS/UDD mobility index not only became an important resource for policymakers, researchers, and journalists but also garnered a lot of publicity in the mass media. The index was widely discussed and cited in newspapers, magazines, and other media outlets, both in Chile and internationally. Its visibility in the mass media and discussion in national TV helped to ensure that its insights were widely disseminated and acted upon, contributing to a more effective response to the pandemic in Chile.

This initiative set a precedent for future research and underscored the importance of collaboration among universities, the private and public sectors, and a drive for innovation in times of crisis. It also highlighted the potential of mobile phone data as a valuable resource for understanding human mobility patterns and improving public health outcomes in Latin America and beyond.

Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, this collaboration between IDS/UDD, Telefónica and CISCO was a remarkable success. The Mobility Index provided valuable insights into how the pandemic was affecting mobility patterns in Chile and demonstrated the power of collaboration and innovation in addressing critical public health challenges. By providing real-time data on human mobility, the index played a crucial role in informing policy decisions and helping to contain the spread of the virus. Looking ahead, the experience of this collaboration highlights the importance of investing in data infrastructure and collaboration across disciplines and sectors to address global challenges such as pandemics.

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