Hide and seek during a lockdown

Foot traffic has fallen dramatically because of the coronavirus. Obvious things have stopped, like air travel and professional sports. But what about less high profile activities? One’s that aren’t explicitly banned and could even count as exercise.

Geocaching is kind of like a global game of hide and seek. Someone hides a container somewhere, publishes coordinates or clues and others try to find it. When you find a geocache you “log” it through an app or a website, maybe with tips and photos.

Geocaching should be the perfect social distancing activity. They’re usually off the beaten track. It can be done solo or just with your household. Geocache logs are also a pretty clean indicator of non-essential movement – nobody has to go geocaching or logs for work.

I’ve hidden a few geocaches. One under a bridge on the Gold Coast in Australia and another in a Sri Lankan park. Even now I get occasional alerts that they’ve been found. But I scraped the logs of 300 geocaches around the Gold Coast and there has been a 50% drop in geocaches found from March to April. April is down 45% from the previous year.

I wanted to make sure this isn’t an anomaly, or that there isn’t some state bias here. So I also scraped 300 geocaches from Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne. The numbers in Adelaide aren’t as dramatic but the effect still appears. There were 38% fewer finds in April than April last year.

The effect is even clearer in Sydney and Melbourne. Finds in April are about a quarter of the previous month. There were only a couple hundred finds in April, down from almost 1500 last year.

My dataset goes back almost a decade. April normally is a solid month, with a couple of public holidays and the weather starting to turn. There’s also a general upward trend over the decade, probably due to an accumulating number of geocaches but maybe also smartphone uptake. Apart from those succeeding a massive outlier, this kind of drop off seems anomalous.

This is a pretty clear sign of how hunkered down everyone is. It hasn’t fallen off completely because some people probably use it as exercise – I often plan my walks around where geocaches are present. But the marginal users have completely fallen away.