Hidden data suggests the UK’s coronavirus lockdown is faltering

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Authorities are worried that the UK might be showing signs of lockdown fatigue. On April 29, Public Health England director Yvonne Doyle said that motor vehicle traffic on April 27 was the highest since the lockdown began on March 23.

Ahead of this past, sunny weekend, government officials – including home secretary Priti Patel and transport secretary Grant Shapps – pleaded with the public to stay home despite the sun and the pent-up urge for a stroll. The tabloid press splashed lurid pictures of purportedly jammed motorways and crowds on Brighton’s seafront. The concern? The lockdown was starting to falter.

To analyse the UK’s lockdown, we can use various sources as reasonable proxies to gauge the UK’s compliance with the government’s demand to stay home. And things do not look good.

The government itself reportedly started fretting after looking at traffic data. That makes sense if one examines the numbers. Take Apple. Since mid-January, the iPhone maker has been reporting on mobility in various countries affected by coronavirus, based on the number of requests for directions made on Apple Maps. The company monitors how many users have used the app to check how to get somewhere – whether by car, public transport, or on foot – and compares that with pre-coronavirus levels.

Apple’s figures for the UK show a clear plunge in the amount of requests for directions in the weekend immediately following the beginning of the lockdown. On March 28 and 29, Apple Maps users were respectively 70.4 per cent and 75.28 per cent less likely to check for driving directions than in January; requests for walking directions had slumped by 62.57 per cent on Saturday and 70.38 on Sunday, while searches for public transport routes had decreased by over 84 per cent over both days.

That slowly but inexorably changed over the following weeks. By April 24, the number of searches for driving directions had increased to an absolute high since the start of the lockdown – 54.31 per cent less than baseline levels. That lessened a bit over the weekend, even if searches were still up by about ten per cent compared with the first post-lockdown weekend. Searches for walking directions also shot up, hovering around 50 per cent of pre-lockdown levels on both April 24 and April 25.

Apple’s data should be taken with a pinch of salt. First of all, it only tells us something about Apple users – although that is not negligible, given that the company controls more than a half of the UK’s mobile market share – and Apple Maps users at that. More importantly, Apple does not track its users’ movements and location, but only searches: it is conceivable that some people who looked up directions never left their flats.

Still, Apple is not the only one signalling that Britons might be chomping at the bit after weeks of lockdown. Google has been producing its own coronavirus-focused mobility reports using aggregated data from Android users who have opted to share their location history. Its reports do not get as far as last weekend, but the general direction is analogous. To quote just one figure: the number of people visiting parks across the UK on April 17 – the most recent date for which Google has published its figures – had grown by 19 per cent compared to March 29.

More sobering information about traffic comes from Teralytics, a Swiss company that crunches mobile signal data – essentially, how smartphones move across the map, pinging various cell towers in their wake – to glean insights about traffic and mobility. While the company cannot narrow its analysis down to the single mobile device, it uses machine learning on vast troves of aggregate data to work out general travel patterns in a given area.

“We take data that are already privatised and anonymised, and process them into trips, looking at how people – at the population level – are moving from A to B,” company CEO Alastair MacLeod says. In the UK, Teralytics has been partnering with CKDelta, a subsidiary of multinational conglomerate CK Hutchison Holdings, which in turn owns mobile network provider Three UK. Relying on anonymised Three data, Teralytics has been able to keep tabs of how mobility – specifically the number of car, bus, and train trips – has evolved in Britain since the start of the coronavirus crisis. Overall, Teralytics found that the announcement of the lockdown on March 23 triggered, predictably, a dramatic shift: on March 24 the number of trips across the UK had more than halved compared to February levels; overall, the number of kilometres covered by UK travellers had decreased by 70 per cent.

But that changed just over two weeks ago. Since April 10, the number of trips, which had been steadily decreasing until then, inched back upwards: by April 17, the number of trips across the UK had increased by over 5.6 million compared to a week earlier; on Friday 24 – the latest day for which Teralytics has data – the number of trips had grown by a further 6.8 million.

Not everyone agrees that the leap in traffic is that worrisome. According to TomTom, a Dutch company that makes sat-nav devices and gathers traffic data from 600 million drivers worldwide, traffic did increase in several UK cities in the last week, but the uptick is largely negligible. The company uses a measure called congestion level to gauge how long it takes for a driver to complete a journey compared to an ideal situation of free flow.

“According to our data, the increase [in the congestion level] is really marginal: between one per cent and three per cent comparing the same days this week with last week,” TomTom’s traffic advisor Stephanie Leonard says. Overall, Leonard says, since the lockdown commenced, the UK’s congestion level has been down by over 50 percent compared with last year.

The question, though, is whether the best way to assess the UK’s compliance with the social distancing measures is to look at how they move. What if we checked simply whether they are at home, regardless of where they went? Kaspr DataHaus is an Australian firm that periodically checks the quality of internet connections in various parts of the world to work out social and economic processes. For example, the company realised that people in Malaysia were staying at home even before the government announced a lockdown, after noticing that the country’s internet speed had deteriorated, a sign that more people than usual were staying at home.

Kaspr monitors tens of thousands of internet-connected devices in the UK – most of them in London. On an average day, they are able to check the status of those devices several thousands times over, for an overall sampling basis of about 890,000 measurements daily. According to company co-founder Simon Angus, already on the weekend of March 21-22 – when the impending lockdown seemed inevitable – Londoners were changing their internet usage patterns.

The number of unique devices that came online throughout the city in the early afternoon had increased by two per cent compared with the previous two weeks. That might seem minor, but Angus explains that most connected devices are kept constantly online. “The variable component of online activity is relatively small (around ten per cent over the day) in London, but this is where all the human behavioural interest lies.”

The data suggested that many people were switching on their devices and preparing to spend their weekends indoors. The pattern established on the eve of the lockdown would keep up substantially unchanged for three weekends – until Sunday April 19. Then, the number of connected devices in London fell back by 2.6 percent, to levels that were even lower than those observed before the lockdown.

Last weekend just seemed to consolidate that pattern, with a further 0.5 per cent slump on April 25, followed by a slight increase on April 26. “There seems to be some reversion back to this lower level, to a more normal, kind of pre-lockdown number of active online addresses,” Angus says. In other words: fewer Londoners were using the internet than ever in the whole lockdown period. Of course, that does not mean necessarily that the whole city was out in the streets, celebrating and ignoring social distancing rules. Many of them might have well just spent some time sunbathing in their gardens; or playing chess; or reading a book.

“We don’t directly measure human behaviour. I don’t know what they were doing. But we can certainly say something about what these devices and computers were doing,” Angus says. “And there seems to be a pretty clear pattern in terms of behavioural switch.”

Gian Volpicelli is WIRED’s politics editor. He tweets from @Gmvolpi

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