TORONTO -- A trove of smartphone location data analysis is painting a dramatic picture of the potential impact ignoring physical distancing measures can have on the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

Researchers from Tectonix and X-Mode Social, two U.S. data analytics firms, partnered up to gather and study the mobile phone location data from a few thousand active devices in one area to help visualize what can happen if proper physical distancing isn’t being done. 

Tectonix released a heat map video on March 25 showing data from the anonymized secondary locations of mobile phones they tracked at a beach in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., during spring break.

Researchers tagged the location-enabled devices and were able to follow where the smartphones went as people returned home from vacation.

The video, which has been viewed on Twitter more than five million times, represents each beachgoer in the targeted area by a point of light on the map.

The heat map can then be expanded to show how it tracks each point of light as it leaves Florida.


The video clearly depicts how quickly a single gathering on a beach can exponentially multiply the spread of a highly contagious virus like COVID-19 across a large country like the U.S.

Since its release, the video has come under some intense scrutiny from critics who pointed out their concerns over invasive data collection and breach of privacy.


Tectonix responded to the controversy in a tweet, saying they were aware of the implications of collecting data at this scale, but reiterated that if used responsibly and with privacy in mind, could “have massive positive effect.”

The firm went on to say that every point of data they gathered in the study was “completely anonymized and collected with user consent.”

The United States now stands with the highest number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the world, with 124,763 as of March 29.

So far, the U.S. has recorded 2,191 deaths related to the virus.