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COVID-19: What impact has social distancing had on infection rates?

Researchers have mined data from Google and Apple, revealing the effects of social distancing in Europe.

By Birgitte Svennevig, , 8/13/2020

The vast majority of Europeans carry a smartphone with them wherever they go.

When we use mobility applications like Google and/or Apple maps, our smartphones save data about our movements and these data are collected by tech giants Apple and Google.

Now researchers have mined these mobility data to study how we have moved around – or not moved around – during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, providing a direct measure of the impact of social distancing in Europe.

Smartphones and pandemics

– In the era of smartphones, we have so much data that we can monitor pandemics in an entirely new and more accurate way, says Professor of theoretical physics at University of Southern Denmark, Francesco Sannino, who conducted the study together with colleagues Giacomo Cacciapaglia and Corentin Cot from University of Lyon in France.

The study is available as pre-print, awaiting peer reviewing

Their calculations show that the effect of social distancing after six weeks amounted to a reduction in infection rate by 25% to 45% for most countries in Europe.

Different degrees of social distancing

The percent change in the infection rate does not mean that there are fewer infected cases. The reduction delays the time for the curve of infected cases to arrive at the maximum but does not necessarily influence the overall number which is an independent quantity. 

Mobility data

The mobility data from Google and Apple are publicly available on the following websites: and

European countries adopted different degrees of social distancing measures during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, the severity of the measures changed during the spreading of the epidemic within each country.

– Rather than classifying the countries based on their political choices, we use the mobility data provided by Google and Apple as indicators of the effective hardness of the measures.

Low mobility in Southern Europe

Citizens in Italy, France, Portugal and Spain had the lowest mobility, meaning they moved less around than people in other countries. When we look at the infection rates in the same countries for the same 6 week period, we see that it dropped by an average of 30 pct.

Sweden had the same drop in infection rate, but had a much higher mobility

– Interestingly, Sweden shows a reduction in the infection rate (of the same order as the one for low mobility countries; Italy, France, Portugal and Spain. This suggests that a certain degree of social restrain occurred regardless of the political decisions in Sweden.

Regarding mobility, all the other countries place themselves in between Sweden and Italy/France/Portugal/Spain.

Meet the researcher

Francesco Sannino is a Professor of theoretical physics at University of Southern Denmark and head of the Center for Cosmology and Particle Physics Phenomenology.