In the past, for example, it was possible to study the mobility of people within the United States by monitoring things such as the movement of banknotes. Today we can use something that is much more global and widely available than US cash.
Mobile phones have almost totally infiltrated human society, with the number estimated at more than 7 billion in 2014. Ownership of mobile phones continues to grow, even in some of the poorest countries.
Many of those phones are geolocated, continuously providing the geographic location of the user, so effectively acting as tracking devices for human populations.
As biologists, our understanding of animals has been transformed over the past four decades by our ability to track their movements and behaviour.
We were interested to see what we can learn from the use of mobile phones tracking, as we show in a study published this month in Trends in Ecology and Evolution.
It’s now possible to use the mobile phone data to gain a better insight into human movement under certain conditions.
It was interesting to note that the human reaction to escape from certain events we found was close to that of some animal groups, such as birds and fish, when fleeing from attack.
Such studies can help predict how people will respond in the future to any emergencies, and help to improve the delivery of any aid or disaster relief.
Conservation with mobile phones
The detail, immediacy and sheer volume of data from mobile phones also offers innovative ways to monitor and possibly solve some of the most pressing conservation problems that animal populations now face.
For example, geolocated phones are changing the way we tackle the crisis of illegal wildlife trade.
Not only is it a major driver of species extinctions, but the human cost is high with more than 1,000 wildlife rangers killed in the line of duty over a ten-year period.
In India, rangers on the front line use a smartphone app to monitor movements and record sightings of targeted species, such as tigers, and to report suspicious activity.