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Columbia company's cellphone data maps show how coronavirus can spread

WBAL TV Baltimore logo WBAL TV Baltimore 4/6/2020

A Howard County company that tracks cellphone data said it could help us understand how an epidemic like the coronavirus spreads.

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If you have a cellphone, it's probably leaving an electronic trail of your where you are going -- when you drive, walk, use other means of transportation.

A big reason many states imposed strict stay-home orders was information showing how much people were still moving about.

Rob Gresham and Elliot Bradshaw co-founded a company in Columbia that they call Tectonix. They use mostly cellphone data collected by another company to map data points at high speed.

The densely populated New York-area has been a coronavirus hot spot with the highest case count in the country. According to mapping by Tectonix, New York has also had many people from the area spreading out to other parts of the country.

"When we ran our search queries and saw what was happening in New York, it was frightening for us because we thought there was a general assumption people in the tri-state area were not traveling much, but when we zoomed in and saw how much movement from the tri-state area was still going all across the country, it was eye opening," Gresham said.

They focused on travel from the New York-area to Maryland during the third week of March.

"We wanted to basically show for the folks that were in the densest area of the coronavirus outbreak, where they could potentially be spreading out around the country to determine what the path might be," Bradshaw said.

The company got a lot of attention earlier in March when it mapped how Florida spring breakers fanned out across the country, setting off alarms about uncontained spread of the virus.

"The thrust of our argument was that people, they need to be taking social distancing seriously," Bradshaw said.

"We think we can work with health officials. If someone is positive and they are in a location, we can work with health officials about the locations they were in to help inform the public," Gresham said.

The use of cellphone data often sparks concern about privacy. In this case, the data is collected by a different company, and much of this type of mapping is being done to track the effectiveness of social distancing.

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