Anonymized smartphone-based mobility data has been widely adopted in devising and evaluating COVID-19 response strategies such as the targeting of public health resources. Yet little attention has been paid to measurement validity and demographic bias, due in part to the lack of documentation about which users are represented as well as the challenge of obtaining ground truth data on unique visits and demographics. We illustrate how linking large-scale administrative data can enable auditing mobility data for bias in the absence of demographic information and ground truth labels. More precisely, we show that linking voter roll data—containing individual-level voter turnout for specific voting locations along with race and age—can facilitate the construction of rigorous bias and reliability tests. These tests illuminate a sampling bias that is particularly noteworthy in the pandemic context: older and nonwhite voters are less likely to be captured by mobility data. We show that allocating public health resources based on such mobility data could disproportionately harm high-risk elderly and minority groups.
Wall Street Journal, “Smartphone Location Data Can Leave Out Those Most Hit by Covid-19”