Evaluating the reliability of mobility metrics from aggregated mobile phone data as proxies for SARS-CoV-2 transmission in the USA: a population-based study

Lancet Digit Health. 2021 Nov 2;S2589-7500(21)00214-4. doi: 10.1016/S2589-7500(21)00214-4. Online ahead of print.


Background: In early 2020, the response to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic focused on non-pharmaceutical interventions, some of which aimed to reduce transmission by changing mixing patterns between people. Aggregated location data from mobile phones are an important source of real-time information about human mobility on a population level, but the degree to which these mobility metrics capture the relevant contact patterns of individuals at risk of transmitting SARS-CoV-2 is not clear. In this study we describe changes in the relationship between mobile phone data and SARS-CoV-2 transmission in the USA.

Methods: In this population-based study, we collected epidemiological data on COVID-19 cases and deaths, as well as human mobility metrics collated by advertisement technology that was derived from global positioning systems, from 1396 counties across the USA that had at least 100 laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19. We grouped these counties into six ordinal categories, defined by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) and graded from urban to rural, and quantified the changes in COVID-19 transmission using estimates of the effective reproduction number (Rt) between Jan 22 and July 9, 2020, to investigate the relationship between aggregated mobility metrics and epidemic trajectory. For each county, we model the time series of Rt values with mobility proxies.

Findings: We show that the reproduction number is most strongly associated with mobility proxies for change in the travel into counties (0·757 [95% CI 0·689 to 0·857]), but this relationship primarily holds for counties in the three most urban categories as defined by the NCHS. This relationship weakens considerably after the initial 15 weeks of the epidemic (0·442 [-0·492 to -0·392]), consistent with the emergence of more complex local policies and behaviours, including masking.

Interpretation: Our study shows that the integration of mobility metrics into retrospective modelling efforts can be useful in identifying links between these metrics and Rt. Importantly, we highlight potential issues in the data generation process for transmission indicators derived from mobile phone data, representativeness, and equity of access, which must be addressed to improve the interpretability of these data in public health.

Funding: There was no funding source for this study.