Perhaps the best place to start with this report is the methodology page that explains data company Unacast’s approach to creating what it is calling a “social distancing scoreboard.” The company has amassed a downright massive amount of cellphone data to create a nationwide analysis and ranking of the social distancing efforts of residents of every U.S. county.
To create the ranking, they tracked the distances people are traveling, the places they are visiting, and the interactions they appear to be having. They then compared those numbers to the movements of people before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to determine if everyone is obeying good social distancing practices. Before we get into the results, I’d just like to say that the public availability of this kind of surveillance data frightens me almost as much as the coronavirus. But we’ll leave that aside for now.
Unacast found that most Texas counties are pretty poor at social distancing. Dallas gets an F, as do Harris and Bexar, which includes San Antonio. Travis sneaks into passing territory with a D-. The rest of North Texas’ counties are bad as well. Tarrant, Collin, Denton, Ellis counties — all Fs. What does this mean? Well, according to the report, Dallas has had a less than 55 percent reduction in “non-essential visits” and a less than 40 percent decrease in “encounters density” compared to the national baseline. The county scores slightly higher when it comes to reducing average mobility.
I’ll leave it to more data-minded readers to dig into the raw numbers here and pull out anything that appears useful — or anything that raises questions about this study or its approach. Here’s one thing I found interesting during my quick digestion. The report offers an interactive graph that allows you to track the county’s social distancing efforts over time. Back in March and early April, Dallas’ scores around mobility and non-essential visits were pretty good — Bs and Cs. But now those grades have sunk.
That trend appears to track with the broader political narrative that saw increased pressure around this time to reopen the economy and loosen shelter-in-place orders, despite the continued stream of new COVID-19 cases. The message here may be that what our political leaders say matters, perhaps even more than what our doctors say or what policies and restrictions are put in place to protect us.