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Vodafone provides anonymized mobile phone signal data to help monitor the spread of COVID-19 and inform early warning systems for new outbreaks

Editor’s note: When Europe’s largest mobile communications company, Vodafone, was asked by the European Commission to help understand population movement across the European Union and the UK to help fight COVID-19, it was able to provide anonymized mobile network-based insights to answer the call. Here’s how Vodafone, with the support of Google Cloud, rapidly mobilized the COVID-19 frontline, while respecting its customers’ privacy.

With the emergence of COVID-19 in early 2020, the European Commission—the executive branch of the European Union (EU)—knew that technology would be instrumental in its fight to control the pandemic. With various lockdowns imposed across its member states, the Commission was keen to predict and prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to manage the related social, political and financial impacts. 

Mobile network data helps track COVID-19 across the EU

Mobile networks produce location data, which can be turned into useful anonymous insights to understand population movement within a geographic area. The European Commission, working with mobile industry association GSMA (Groupe Speciale Mobile Association), asked Europe’s major mobile phone operators for help in producing insights to support the fight against COVID-19. As the largest mobile network operator within the EU, Vodafone saw this as a critical opportunity to participate. 

Vodafone had previous experience of using mobile network data to support pandemic research. For example, in 2019, Vodafone provided mobility pattern analysis to help track the spread of Malaria in Mozambique. And, during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic (prior to working with the European Commission), Vodafone assisted the Italian and Spanish governments in understanding their citizens’ mobility patterns. Vodafone had also previously offered anonymized and aggregated population mobility insights to support public transport and tourism authorities and retail organizations in a number of countries. Consequently, Vodafone was perfectly placed to play a greater role in supporting the European Commission’s response to the pandemic. 

When asked to assist the European Commission, Vodafone first considered how it could safely share its data with the governing body without providing details on the individual movements of its customers. It realized it could achieve this through an elaborate set of anonymization and aggregation techniques. Insights are aggregated from a minimum of 50 users and Vodafone only shared these anonymous insights and never the actual raw data with the Commission. As specified by the EU, these insights are then presented onto a large geographical region, typically a city or a county with thousands of people living in that area.

These insights illustrate how people move, helping to determine how lockdowns and self-isolation measures were impacting behaviors.

Using Google Cloud to collate and store population mobility data

In April 2020, Vodafone began migrating its operations, including its mobile data, to Google Cloud on servers in Europe and the UK with elaborate security safeguards, including encryption, building on a previous partnership. 

With the data residing in EU and UK data centers and not the United States, Vodafone could then retrieve anonymous insights from Google Cloud Storage instantaneously. Before supplying any information to the European Commission, however, Vodafone used Dataflow to validate the data and run a series of tests to ensure the database had accurate data, before ingesting and archiving the relevant metrics. For instant access, the data was then made available to the European Commission using a Redis database on Google Kubernetes Engine.

To ensure aggregate Vodafone customer data was always safe, secure, and anonymous, all entry points to the front-end were protected behind Google Cloud Armor, where only specific IP addresses were allowed. Using these tools, seamless data pipelines fed in predefined key performance indicators from each specified European market. While data quality measures ensured the definitions for metrics across markets were consistent and could be accurately compared.

The architecture (pictured below) shows how Vodafone integrated and anonymized its data on Google Cloud.

Live interactive dashboard shows population mobility in real-time

With its data integrated on Google Cloud, Vodafone created a live, interactive dashboard to track mobility patterns and share relevant information with the European Commission in real-time. 

The European Commission Joint Research Center (JRC) was able to gather valuable information from these insights, which enabled them to see where population mobility was aiding the spread of the disease, when cross-referenced with health data It could also assess the implications of lockdowns on different populations and forecast cross-country spreading.

Mobile data aids disease modeling for multiple stakeholders

The Vodafone data became instrumental in modeling the likely course of the disease too. For example, the University of Southampton in the UK used it to predict the outcome of different coordinated COVID-19 exit strategies across Europe. This research was published in Science Magazine in September 2020. 

The Vodafone data dashboard continues to be used by individual governments, NGOs and organizations to further investigate the impacts of the pandemic and to measure the effectiveness of response strategies alongside the rollout of vaccination programs. The project also helped Vodafone win a DataIQ award for most effective stakeholder engagement

Using the learnings from this project, Vodafone has been able to adapt its own B2B solution, called Vodafone Analytics, by adaptIng and migrating the code to work in Google Cloud Platform. This solution has been rolled out across Germany, Greece, Portugal and South Africa, and new countries are being onboarded every day. Vodafone Analytics already has more than 100 customers leveraging it for a variety of use cases—Italian fashion retailer OVS, uses it for its smart retail operation, while global real estate company, JLL, uses it to understand the footfall passing through its properties. 

Working together, Vodafone and Google Cloud continue to help a range of organizations, governments, and NGOs navigate through the ongoing pandemic,  optimize their operations, and help the greater good, without infringing individuals’ fundamental rights to privacy.

To learn more about Google Cloud and Vodafone, watch our full interview here.

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