13 December 2021
Using Seismic Data to Track Pandemic Lockdowns
Photo Credit : M.B.M. / Unsplash
story highlights

As waves of COVID-19 infections and lockdowns continue to roll around the world, some people are pushing back against government efforts to track human movement.

A data project by a young Canadian student uses seismic data as an anonymous proxy to track how much a city's population is reducing their movement.

As waves of COVID-19 infections and responsive government lockdowns continue to unfurl around the world, a web application that gathers seismic data offers policymakers a non-invasive way to gauge their efforts to reduce human movement.

MonitorMyLockdown.com, created by Toronto youth Artash Nath, uses programming language Python to gather and chart data from seismic stations located outside Canadian cities. The incredible sensitive equipment is purposefully deployed far from the construction and traffic of population centres to avoid urban vibrations cancelling out geologic readings. However, the stations still pick up shifts in behavior at major urban centers.

“While natural vibrations occur from zero to two hertz, urban noises happen at a higher frequency—between five to 20 hertz,” Nath said. “I extracted urban noises related to human movement during the lockdown and compared them to pre-lockdown levels.”

The Grade 9 student’s examination of data from sites near nine Canadian cities found periods of “seismic silence” that corresponded with the most extreme government lockdown measures in the early months of 2020, with some variations matching local conditions.

“The decrease in seismic vibrations matched with human mobility trend data obtained from other sources,” Nath said. “This shows seismic vibrations can be used as a proxy to measure the reductions in human movements.”

By drawing on openly available data that does not need additional work to anonymize individuals’ behavior—as cellular data requires, for example—the project provides a broad real-time evaluation of policymakers’ restrictions. Without exacerbating concerns of government monitoring, the project’s updates give health workers a rough estimate of urban movement levels that could forewarn of a spike in COVID-19 cases.

Nath took the further step of sharing his code and free tutorials on popular software development site GitHub so anyone could monitor anthropogenic seismic data in their country—an altruistic move in line with principles of open data solutions being championed by the UN World Data Forum and high-profile champions in the push to better track SDG achievement.

This article was written with support from the UN World Data Forum Secretariat. Read additional SDG Knowledge Hub stories about the UN World Data Forum, data impact, and news.

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