Responding to Disasters with Mobile Phone Data

Much is said about exploiting the value of customer data. Mobile phone networks know a lot about their customers, and this prompts technologists and marketeers to devise new ways to profit from the information they gather. But before we consider how to push selective advertising or create new location-based services, we must remember that life is the greatest asset that any of us possess. So it is heartening to read the research on how Digicel’s customer data was used to direct relief in the wake of the earthquake and cholera epidemic that hit Haiti in 2010. By analysing the movements of 2 million phones, academics from the Karolinska Institutet, Sweden, and Columbia University, USA, were able to give vital and timely information to humanitarian organizations working on the ground. Dr. Linus Bengtsson and his colleagues monitored how people migrated from the worst-hit areas to other parts of the country. This meant relief supplies could be sent in the right amounts to where they were most needed.

This is reportedly the first time that mobile phone data has been used like this, but the findings suggest it will not be the last. For example, the mobile phone data provided

…a more detailed and robust picture of population movement than was otherwise available during the disaster response effort.

A valid question to ask is whether the data can be analysed quickly enough. The answer is that the researchers reviewed movements during the cholera outbreak and

…were able to implement their analyses and disseminate results within 12 hours of acquiring the network data.

Further work is needed to perfect the techniques, but the conclusion is optimistic:

While millions continue to be adversely affected by natural disasters, in an increasingly connected world where mobile phone ownership is becoming ubiquitous, these data will likely become a valuable component of the disaster response toolbox. Bengtsson and colleagues have taken the first step towards this full potential being realised.

These quotes were taken from a paper by Gething and Tatem [1] that discusses the implication of the research; you can read this paper here. They reviewed the work presented in this article by Bengtsson et al [2]. The conclusion of Bengtsson et al was straightforward and compelling:

We recommend establishing relations with mobile phone operators prior to emergencies as well as implementing and further evaluating the method during future disasters.

You heard them. There is nothing more valuable than the well-being of our compatriots. Let us hope that all mobile phone companies do their utmost to support this important work.

1. Gething PW, Tatem AJ (2011) Can Mobile Phone Data Improve Emergency Response to Natural Disasters? PLoS Med 8(8): e1001085. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001085

2. Bengtsson L, Lu X, Thorson A, Garfield R, von Schreeb J (2011) Improved Response to Disasters and Outbreaks by Tracking Population Movements with Mobile Phone Network Data: A Post-Earthquake Geospatial Study in Haiti. PLoS Med 8(8): e1001083. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001083

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is a recognized expert on communications risk and assurance. He was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and others.

Eric was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He was a member of Qatar's National Committee for Internet Safety and the first leader of the TM Forum's Enterprise Risk Management team. Eric currently sits on the committee of the Risk & Assurance Group. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.

Commsrisk is edited by Eric. Look here for more about Eric's history as editor.