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What Will It Take to Re-Open the Economy Safely?

May 15, 2020
Ryan Fox Squire

SafeGraph Patterns foot-traffic data is being used to help states figure out the safest path for re-opening the economy as the COVID-19 pandemic continues  

Over the last couple of months, SafeGraph has played a central role in enabling governments, businesses, and researchers to analyze the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on all aspects of American life in near-real-time. And through SafeGraph’s COVID-19 Data Consortium—made up of 2,000+ academic institutions, industry-leading researchers, non-profit organizations, and government bodies—a tremendous amount of research has surfaced to help us cope in real-time with this crisis at national, state, and local levels as it continues to unfold.

So, it really should come as no surprise that today, as the conversation increasingly shifts to overcoming this crisis, SafeGraph Patterns foot traffic data is once again becoming a “source of truth” for governments and businesses alike as they build a strategic game plan for re-opening the American economy safely.

To fuel these strategies, we’ve created our new Re-opening the Economy dashboard, leveraging SafeGraph Patterns foot traffic data on over five million Points-of-Interest—including 5,500+ retail chains and three million “mom-and-pop” businesses—to provide unparalleled and actionable insights around economic recovery in the US as it unfolds in real-time.

SafeGraph Reopening The Economy Dashboard Map From Foot Traffic Data
SafeGraph’s new “Re-opening the Economy” dashboard provides real-time data and insights into the state of economic recovery in the United States at the state- and country-levels and across various industries. 

Underscoring the value of our data and dashboards even further, Sendhil Mullainathan, professor of computational and behavioral science at the University of Chicago, recently created quite the tweet-storm around research specifically leveraging SafeGraph data to help identify new best practices for re-opening businesses logically without adding to public health risk. 

In Rationing Social Contact During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Transmission Risk and Social Benefits of US Locations,” where researchers from the MIT Sloan School of Management sought to understand why decisions were being made to either re-open some businesses more quickly than others or make an assessment as to what constitutes a more “at-risk” businesses given the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

To assess various levels of risk, the researchers combined SafeGraph Patterns data with SafeGraph Polygons (square footage measurements of Points-of-Interest) to get a better sense of how total visits, total unique visitors, and “dwell time”—in other words, how long more than one person lingers in the same location for a prolonged period of time—factor into the relative risk of any given POI. Therefore, businesses with greater overall foot traffic and a higher dwell time rank much higher on this risk assessment meter, so to speak, than low-trafficked businesses where customer visits tend to be more “in-and-out” or transactional in nature. 

Knowing this, one of the most eye-opening parts of this research is how it creates a unique way to pit relative “risk” against relative “importance” across 26 business categories. The overall intent of this exercise is to help policymakers create new “essential business” criteria as a way of proposing a more effective staged or phased approach to eventual business re-openings. 

Assessing the relative importance of 26 business categories, in metro and non-metro areas, as a linear regression on the “danger index,” where businesses in gold tones have disproportionately higher importance (relative to their risk) while businesses in blue tones have disproportionately lower importance. 

Taking this one step further, by combining this data into an importance-risk trade-off favorability index—and then comparing it to changes in SafeGraph Patterns foot traffic from February to March 2020—the researchers also begin to paint a picture about where “risk” and “importance” truly intersect. 

Trade-offs are being made around which businesses to remain shut down vs. which to being re-opening based on a measure importance vs. risk favorability scale. 

Similarly, on behalf of the National Bureau of Economic Research, researchers from MIT’s Sloan School of Management and the University of Toronto Rotman School of Management sought to approach this same question in a slightly different way: by examining which retail locations generate the most physical interactions, to identify where there could be the most risk for continued virus spread.  

The main takeaway here is that small businesses with generally less foot traffic—but also tend to see the most return customers and, thus, can be considered vitally important for local communities—are those best suited to open first. This assumption is made even though customers oftentimes linger longer in these small businesses, compared to larger chain stores, could ultimately pose a greater risk of virus spread if left unchecked.

Re-opening the economy safely comes down to the data

What’s happening in the world today is unprecedented for everyone. Each and every day, people across the country are doing their best to not only cope with the COVID-19 crisis but to figure out real—and speedy—solutions for overcoming the health and economic risks that novel coronavirus pandemic has brought to the U.S. and the world. 

That being said, the path towards a safe re-opening of the U.S. economy comes down to the data. By looking at where consumers may be exposed to the greatest risk while also being cognizant of which businesses are potentially the most important, relatively speaking, for keeping consumers alive and well in the here and now, we can begin the first steps towards getting the U.S. economy back on track again without plunging ourselves further into this crisis.

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If you are with a for-profit business, please contact our team today to learn how these datasets can help your business navigate this unfolding health and economic crisis. 

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