Phillip O'Neill writes: It's gobsmacking seeing the extent to which Google is tracking our lives

WORLD OF CHANGE: As COVID-19 swept the globe, more and more Novocastrians worked from home.
WORLD OF CHANGE: As COVID-19 swept the globe, more and more Novocastrians worked from home.

Google has released data which reveals how our lives changed in a world infected by COVID-19. Google calls the data its "Community Mobility Reports".

My reaction on seeing them is astonishment, but not only by what they show about the impact of COVID-19, which we'll get to.

What is also gobsmacking is seeing the extent to which Google is tracking our lives. For every local government area in Australia, for all of 2020, the mobility reports show our daily presence at homes and at workplaces, our trips to the shops, recreation and parks, and our use of public transport.

The reports have been compiled district-by-district for just about every nation on earth.

Information for the reports comes mainly from our smart devices, which continuously track our movements.

Currently, the Australian government is drafting new privacy laws to give us better control of the information the global technology firms - especially Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon - collect from us secretly.


Last week, the Australian federal court ruled Google had engaged in misleading conduct in its use of tracking devices on Android smart phones. Google is likely to appeal the decision; the stakes are significant. Google's main income comes from packaging consumers to advertisers. So knowing what we do, and where and when we do it, is the knowledge that drives its business model.

Perhaps, Google is after a reputation boost in releasing the mobility reports. Maybe it wants us to think we are all in this together.

Could a worker from the lower Hunter maintain a high-paying job in the Sydney CBD without relocating?

Let's examine what the Google reports tell us about the impacts of COVID-19 on workplaces in the Newcastle area last year.

The story for us started in March. The national infection tally reached 100 on March 10. By April 1, it reached 5000. NSW went into lockdown. JobKeeper fired up.

Google tells us that the drop-off in workplace attendance across the Newcastle LGA plummeted.

After Easter, attendance at Newcastle's workplaces was down by 70 per cent compared to the start of February.

School holidays in the second half of April made working from home even more compelling. We saw pictures of an eerily deserted Sydney CBD. Google says workplace attendance in that CBD workplace dropped by more than 75 per cent.

But in May attendances recovered, though slowly. By mid-August Newcastle workplaces were still down by 25 per cent from February levels, and then 20 per cent by December, the equivalent of a full-time worker turning up on site only four days per week.

In inner Sydney, the trend back to work was similar, although, by December, 35 per cent were still off-site compared to early February, a turn-up rate for a full-time worker of barely three days per week.

Most business commentators predict "remote working" - the new technical word for "working from home" - will be one of the longstanding impacts of COVID-19.

From an employer point of view, every remote worker saves 15 square metres of expensive office space.

From a state government point of view, 25 per cent fewer Sydney CBD workers lowers the demand for expensive commuter transport.

The year 2020 showed firms that employees didn't need long hours in the office, Monday to Friday, to work productively.

Surveys, worldwide, reveal workers quite like personalised rosters, more opportunities to work from home, flexibility. Recruiting the best and brightest will mean offering such options.

In which case, could a worker from the lower Hunter maintain a high-paying job in the Sydney CBD - private or public sector - without relocating? Certainly new technologies will help.

The rollout of 5G will mean faster internet connections and greater capacity. 5G will also drive innovation in augmented reality, a massive enhancement for the remote worker.

The frustrated home worker on a clunky Zoom connection, unable to transfer big files, barred from internal systems due to security risks, will be a creature of the past. Science fiction fantasies may well be in reach.

Remote working from the lower Hunter has excellent prospects in such a digitally-enhanced world for the home office.

Bespoke satellite offices might become strategic hubs. Specialist sites that guarantee secure access to data and equipment seem obvious, client-servicing spaces likewise. And larger training and exhibition spaces in gorgeous locations could become good earners.

It's not hard to get excited thinking about such opportunities.

Phillip O'Neill is professor of economic geography at Western Sydney University.

This story Ever get the feeling you're being watched? first appeared on Newcastle Herald.