Bangalore: First, they were phones, albeit wireless ones that customers could tote around wherever they went.
Then they became phones-plus, multifunctional devices with the processing power of a computer with various computing, entertainment and communication applications.
Now, a new study shows that they can be used to track patterns of human movement and aid in urban planning, disaster management and disease monitoring.
In a paper titled “Understanding Individual Human Mobility Patterns” in Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature, researchers from the US report that they monitored movements of 100,000 people following their cellphone signals and found, predictably, that “most people are creatures of habit”, inclined to move around the same few locations, occasionally given to long hops.
Researchers say epidemiologists can use this finding to understand human behaviour. However, in a country such as India where about 8 million mobile users are added every month, and where no such mobility data exists, this research can pave way to a veritable treasure trove.
“This is undoubtedly valuable information for transport and urban planning and traffic management,” says Swati Ramanathan, urban planner and co-founder of Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy in Bangalore. Transport and traffic planning requires the understanding of origin destination points to draw what is called “desire patterns” and allow informed planning, such as the development of public transport alignments, deployment of traffic police, greater density of housing and enterprise along the desire lines, she says.
The data could also be used in allocating land for purposes such as retail, commercial, recreational, educational and housing as well as in ensuring connectivity and mitigating environmental impact among other things. There have been previous attempts to map such movements, for instance, by tracking banknotes (which are taken to be proxy for human mobility) but they have not provided an accurate picture of individuals’ movements. But in this research, Albert-László Barabási from the Centre for Complex Network Research at Northeastern University in Boston, and colleagues mapped 100,000 people’s movements—out of a sample of 6 million “anonymized” mobile phone users—by logging the locations of the transmitter towers that handled each of their calls or text messages over a six-month period.
What they found was “despite the diversity of their travel history, humans follow simple reproducible patterns”, and they think this similarity in travel patterns could impact all phenomena driven by human mobility including epidemic prevention and emergency response.
The location of the study cannot be disclosed, but researchers say it’s not in the US. There could be slight variation in the findings if the geography and income vary, but what is more important is that mobility patterns can be characterized. “This opens the opportunity to ask this question in scientific terms by performing comparative studies,” says Marta C. González, a co-author of the study. She thinks even slight variation in these patterns can help understand human behaviour and “how we organize at a global and local level”.
Gonzalez is not alone in thinking of global and local organizations with respect to phones. Carlo Ratti, director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s SENSEable City Laboratory and a professor of the practice of urban technologies, recently showed how telecom data exchange is an indicator of the way the world is organizing itself.
Using data from the telecom firm AT&T, Ratti made maps which showed—almost in real time—how New York, which incidentally proved to be a larger global hub than London, was connecting to the rest of the world. It also showed how Mumbai ranked 24th on the dial list of Manhattan residents but moved up 13 notches for residents?of?Queens.
Out-of-the-box research these may seem, but commercial applications are not too way off. Ratti’s maps, experts say, may help airlines plan new flight routes. On the other hand, Barabasi and colleagues feel telecom operators would benefit from mobility patterns as they are constantly looking for ways to “identify users most susceptible to their products”.
Traditionally, market segmentation was done on socioeconomic and demographic data, such as income, age and gender, but mobility pattern is yet another way to perform this segmentation, says Gonzalez.
Sceptics, however, have reasoned arguments. “This is a provocative idea that the tracking of social movement can have technology, business and even social benefits,” says Aditya Dev Sood, chief executive officer and founder of Centre for Knowledge Societies, a research and design services company in Bangalore. He thinks most of such benefit multiplies when shared with people, who can then “extract greater value out of such locational information by responding to it dynamically”.
Avoiding traffic jams and planning routes dynamically or hitching a ride with people are some of the obvious uses of this information that Sood thinks of but his worry is that any such repository of end- user information is “liable to be eventually published or else used for legal and evidentiary purposes”.
Both Sood and Ramanathan caution that there can be loss of privacy, and hence consent should be central to any future application of technologies that trace human movement.