Network operator can provide information on the location of about one in three of the UK population
The Department of Health and Social Care has signed a £1.8m year-long deal to access anonymised location data from the O2 mobile network.
The contract, which came into effect on 1 October, is the third such deal the department has signed with the telco during the pandemic for access to its Motion data service, which provides aggregate information on population movement.
Once so-called piggyback networks are taken into account – including giffgaff, Sky, Tesco and Lyca, whose services are all hosted on the O2 infrastructure – O2 is the largest mobile network provider in the UK, with more one in three citizens connected, across upwards of 25 million accounts.
Using anonymous location information from users’ phones, the company’s Motion data offering can provide public sector organisations with “insights on movement, demography, mobility patterns and behaviours of millions of people, covering 30% of the UK population”, according to the service’s profile on the GOV.UK Digital Marketplace platform.
The service, which O2 claims includes data from about 30% of the UK population, offers “real-time movement” data on the UK population, as well as insights into methods of travel, and crowding patterns. Data can reportedly be provided “at any scale” – from movements in and out of a single building, up to coverage of the whole country.
The listing on the Digital Marketplace indicates that the service was primarily envisioned as a tool to support decision-making in transport, planning, and economic programmes.
But, since September last year, the Joint Biosecurity Centre – a body set up to help guide the government’s pandemic response – has been using the data set to help understand trends in population movement.
The first deal between the DHSC and O2 ran for one year and expired in late September. About £1m was spent across the course of the engagement.
That contract said: “The permitted purpose of the base data outputs are for the provision to and use by the Department of Health and Social Care Joint Biosecurity Centre and permitted partner organisations… for the following purpose: use of the deliverables to assist in achieving common research objectives; [and] use of the deliverables to assist in its activities to support UK government. The data may be shared directly with ONS (the Office for National Statistics) and the Cabinet Office.”
A subsequent contract, worth an additional £455,750, was signed in December 2020 and expires in two months’ time.
The latest deal, which is scheduled to run until 30 September, is the largest yet. A total of £1.79m is expected to be spent via the contract.
The contract award notice said: “O2 Data and Insights provides authorities with insights on movement, demography, mobility-patterns and behaviour of millions of people. This big-data solution provides an unrivalled evidence-base.”
The Joint Biosecurity Centre, alongside Public Health England and the NHS Test and Trace scheme, has now been incorporated in the newly created UK Health Security Agency.
In late 2020, JBC also worked with specialist mobility data company Emodo – part of telecoms firm Ericsson – to understand the impact of lockdowns on people’s behaviour.
“The Joint Biosecurity Centre, the Covid-19 Task Force, and No.10 need to understand where are the mobility hotspots in the UK, so as to prevent Covid transmission risk and limit the economic cost of regional lockdowns,” the Cabinet Office said in a contract notice published at the time.”