The Twitter Social Mobility Index: Measuring Social Distancing Practices from Geolocated Tweets

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April 06, 2020

The outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, a Coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19, has caused a pandemic on a scale unseen in a generation. Without an available vaccine to reduce transmission of the virus, public health and elected officials have called on the public to practice social distancing. Social distancing is a set of practices in which individuals maintain a physical distance so as to reduce the number of physical contacts they encounter (Maharaj and Kleczkowski, 2012; Kelso et al., 2009). These practices include maintaining a distance of at least six feet and avoiding large gatherings (Glass et al., 2006). At the time of this writing, in the United States nearly every state has implemented state-wide “stay-at-home” orders to enforce social distancing practices (Zeleny, 2020).

While an important tool in the fight against COVID-19, the implementation of social distancing by the general public can vary widely. While a state governor may issue an order for the practice, individuals in different states may respond in different ways. Understanding actual reductions in travel and social contacts is critical to measuring the effectiveness of the policy. These policies may remain in effect for an extended period of time. Thus, the public may begin to relax their practices, making additional policies necessary. Additionally, epidemiologists already model the impact of social distancing policies on the course of an outbreak (Prem et al., 2020; Fenichel et al., 2011; Caley et al., 2008). These models may be more effective when incorporating actual measures of social distancing, rather than assuming official policies are implemented in practice.

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