After Google and Facebook, Apple has now released its mobility data trends tool from Apple Maps for 63 countries/regions and major cities “to mitigate the spread of COVID-19”. This could “provide helpful insights to local governments and health authorities” and could be used to design “new public policies” by showing changes in people’s walking, driving and public transit habits.

Unlike mobility data shared by Google that gave information about how popular certain places such as parks and grocery shops have been on the basis of anonymised location data, Apple has collected this data by counting the number of requests made to Apple Maps for directions. January 13, 2020, has been treated as the baseline for volume of requests. These data sets are then compared to reflect changes in “volume of people driving, walking or taking public transit”.

Country data for India and city data for Delhi and Mumbai shows only driving and walking data, but no public transit data. Data for India shows that requests for driving and walking directions started falling dramatically from March 15. Requests for driving directions fell the most (83.7%) on April 5, and for walking directions (77.18%) on April 4.

Apple mobility trends for India. Source: Apple

In Delhi, requests for directions fell dramatically on March 9 and 10, by almost 35%, but then recovered for a week, to consistently start decreasing from March 17. Requests for driving directions fell the most (87.99%) on April 5, and for walking directions (83.96%) on April 1.

Apple mobility trends for Delhi. Source: Apple

Mumbai started seeing a fall in number of direction requests from March 8, seeing highest dip in requests for driving directions (83.7%) on April 5, and for walking directions (77.18%) on April 4.

Apple mobility trends for Mumbai. Source: Apple

How useful would this data be? This remains to be seen in the Indian context given that iOS occupies only 3.18% of the Indian smartphone market, majority of which is dominated by Android phones at 94.02%. India has only 12 million iPhone users in India. Moreover, Google Maps remains the most favoured navigation app. A 2018 study in the US had found that 67% users used Google Maps while only 11% users used Apple Maps. This is despite iPhones continuously occupying 40% of the American smartphone market.

Privacy protecting? Apple Maps do not associate mobility data with a user’s Apple ID and Apple does not keep a history of where a user has been. The new tool only displays aggregated data. Data collected by Maps, such as search terms, navigation routing and traffic information, is associated with continually reset random identifiers to obscure users’ identities because of which Apple doesn’t have a profile on users’ movements and searches.

On January 30, 2020, Apple had rolled out new features of Apple Maps and explained how privacy works. As per those, no sign-in is required to use Apple Maps and its use is not connected to an Apple ID in any way. Personalised features, such as suggesting departure time, work on the basis of information stored locally on the device; not in any cloud. Users’ locations are further obscured through “fuzzing”. Maps also converts the precise location from where the search originated to a less-exact one after 24 hours, and does not retain a history of the search, or where the user has been.