Norwegian operator Telenor said that Norwegians complied with the government directive to stay away from their holiday cabins to curb the spread of coronavirus but were quick to return once the prohibition ended. Telenor’s Big Data show that mobility dropped to around 44 percent of normal levels when the authorities imposed restrictions in mid-March. There were particularly sharp drops in winter sports resorts such as Trysil (74 percent), Vinje (73 percent), Hol (72 percent) and Voss (73 percent).
Over the weekend of 25-26 April, once cabin visits were permitted again, there was a 1,371 percent surge in mobile traffic in Sirdal. There were rises of 343 percent in Oppdal, 301 percent in Hol, 436 percent in Vinje and 358 percent in Trysil, compared with pre-restriction levels.
A survey by Telenor Research in April 2020 found that just over 60 percent of 1,200 Norwegian respondents supported the authorities’ use of anonymized location data during outbreaks of seriously contagious disease.
Due to the ubiquitous nature of the technology, mobile devices are an excellent way to track, document and assess the behavior of citizens during a medical emergency such as the coronavirus pandemic. The “big data” about customers available to mobile operators can be used to determine large-scale travel and movement patterns, as well as to perform contact tracing. In the former instance, anonymized data is sufficient, while in the latter, it is necessary for the operator, at least, to know the identity of infected people and those with whom they have come in contact.
In this case in Norway, Telenor has used aggregated anonymized customer geolocation data to assess the extent to which the country’s population (or at least that segment of it which subscribes to Telenor’s service) complied with government directives to stay home and not travel to vacation residences, as they customarily do. The data showed a major drop in mobility within the country during the period of restriction, followed by a significant uptick as soon as the restriction was lifted. This information is of course useful to authorities as they assess the degree of success of such directives. This information came from location data; another kind of information, of more direct use to the operator itself, came from data traffic levels. When the restriction was lifted, network usage dramatically increased in the areas to which Norwegians typically travel on holidays—ranging from tripling to more than a tenfold increase. Contact tracing through mobile devices, while it has been discussed widely and even in some cases implemented, is controversial because of the privacy issues involved—even though it could save lives. So, it is interesting to note that even in this much milder version, with all data anonymized, around 40 percent of Norwegians surveyed were not comfortable with the use of their data. That goes to show that mobile operators, working in tandem with governments, face a difficult path forward in terms of customer trust when it comes to using personal data in any way, even during a major public-health crisis such as the present one.