Can tracking people through phone-call data improve lives?

Amy Maxmen in Nature: “After an earthquake tore through Haiti in 2010, killing more than 100,000 people, aid agencies spread across the country to work out where the survivors had fled. But Linus Bengtsson, a graduate student studying global health at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, thought he could answer the question from afar. Many Haitians would be using their mobile phones, he reasoned, and those calls would pass through phone towers, which could allow researchers to approximate people’s locations. Bengtsson persuaded Digicel, the biggest phone company in Haiti, to share data from millions of call records from before and after the quake. Digicel replaced the names and phone numbers of callers with random numbers to protect their privacy.

Bengtsson’s idea worked. The analysis wasn’t completed or verified quickly enough to help people in Haiti at the time, but in 2012, he and his collaborators reported that the population of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, dipped by almost one-quarter soon after the quake, and slowly rose over the next 11 months1. That result aligned with an intensive, on-the-ground survey conducted by the United Nations.

Humanitarians and researchers were thrilled. Telecommunications companies scrutinize call-detail records to learn about customers’ locations and phone habits and improve their services. Researchers suddenly realized that this sort of information might help them to improve lives. Even basic population statistics are murky in low-income countries where expensive household surveys are infrequent, and where many people don’t have smartphones, credit cards and other technologies that leave behind a digital trail, making remote-tracking methods used in richer countries too patchy to be useful.

Since the earthquake, scientists working under the rubric of ‘data for good’ have analysed calls from tens of millions of phone owners in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Kenya and at least two dozen other low- and middle-income nations. Humanitarian groups say that they’ve used the results to deliver aid. And researchers have combined call records with other information to try to predict how infectious diseases travel, and to pinpoint locations of poverty, social isolation, violence and more (see ‘Phone calls for good’)….(More)”.