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UW research project tracking public movement sees recent spike in travel

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MADISON (WKOW) -- How much are we moving? Where are we going? Before COVID-19 arrived in Wisconsin, UW-Madison Assistant Geography Professor Song Gao was exploring those questions.

"We are in geography. For us, we are more interested in, you know, how the mobility patterns are associated with different demographic and socioeconomic status," Gao said.

As the pandemic struck the United States, Gao said he recognized the data also lets us see the extent to which people are following the guidance of infectious disease experts and staying home as much as possible.

"We can definitely see the voluntary mobility changes before the statewide order in each place," Gao said.

The project uses tracking data from cell phone GPS providers like Google and Apple.

"We do not have the individual level mobility data and tracking data because of privacy issues so what we have is only place-based or aggregation-based statistics," Gao said.

The map shows variability between counties; a few have seen more movement over time while most have had a lot less. Gao said he was surprised to see a near-universal spike in movement on May 1. Even counties like Dane, which show extremely little mobility over the past several weeks, was part of the spike.

"Big jumps, that really surprised me," Gao said.

Gao said, at this time, he can only speculate as to what led to people getting out and traveling farther than they had been. He said possibilities include peoples' perceptions of the virus changing and beautiful weather last weekend.

An order from Governor Evers allowing more "nonessential" businesses to reopen while allowing curbside service only also went into effect on April 29 while 34 state parks and forests reopened on May 1.

The tracking data has consistently shown more movement in rural counties than urban ones. Gao said he believes the most likely reason for that is people in rural areas simply have to travel farther to get essential items like groceries.

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A. J. Bayatpour

Reporter, WKOW 27

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