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 the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Chief Executive of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.

3 Comments on "Responding to Disasters with Mobile Phone Data"

  1. Avatar Alvaro Del Hoyo | 3 Oct 2011 at 11:45 am |

    Hi, Eric

    In European Union telco operators should destroyed or, at least, make traffic and location data anonymous as long as communication service has been provided. Exceptions are in place either when data is needed for billing, or there is previous informed consent by the users, or as long as location data is neccessary for billing of services, or even if a law is authorising it (for instance traffic and location data mandatory retention).

    So there is no chance for telco operators to keep permanent track of our movements, location data any time we are searched by the network in the surroundings of a cell tower, unless there is previous informed consent regarding a specific treatment purpose such the one this paper is suggesting.

    Maybe mobile app providers are in a much better position to provide this kind of data in a way consistent with what is suggested on the paper, as long as they are keeping really big bunch of puntual location data records, normally, with previous informed content. Even though mobile app providers should include this kind of specific data treatment purpose and deliveries to relevant third parties.

    Another option is that telco operator is anonymizing location data, or in the case they are becoming a mobile app that is tracking our puntual location movements.

    In any case, location data anonymization is not something easy to tackle if you consider the fact that data controllers could be registering almost our every day movements and that de-anonymization or re-identifying techniques are becoming more efficient every day:

    Of course, there is an opportunity to improve electronic privacy legislation in order to allow data analysis with the goal to protect human beings lives and physical integrity, isn´t it?

    Likewise, there is space for research and development to get some other advantages from location data, but privacy impact assessment should be taken into account from scratch, during services and products design:

    Specially now, that many other of our every day devices are going to embed SIM cards:

    As you can see, our mobile devices are becoming an incredible extension of our identity and many new services will be provided, whic is leading to many opportunities for new revenue leakages ;-p


  2. @ Alvaro,

    You make a string of excellent points. I can’t do justice to them now, but I’ll note that the soft underbelly of privacy legislation is the tendency for businesses to use standard terms and conditions to obtain from users the kind of consent you refer to, coupled with the difficulty of implementing an enforcement regime without first obtaining clear evidence of someone suffering from non-compliance.

    Focusing on the specific use of data to avoid in managing the response to disasters, my limited correspondence with Dr. Bengtsson gives me confidence that he’s committed to satisfying the word and spirit of privacy laws. I sincerely hope that mobile providers can work with him to safeguard privacy whilst enabling the kind of rapid response his analytical techniques aim to support. That said, this is an area where the guidance of individuals like yourself would also be very helpful.

    You rightly point out the risks associated with embedded SIM cards, an area that would benefit from further detailed examination. If I understand the specs correctly, there is greater potential for embedded SIMs to be updated Over The Air, and this opens up the potential for new lines of attack. Again, I don’t do justice to the topic, but I agree with your appraisal of the significance of this development.

  3. Avatar Alvaro Del Hoyo | 3 Oct 2011 at 9:48 pm |


    Provide some clarification here will be fair for researches, trying to avoid any misunderstanding from readers.

    As it is noted on the paper Dr. Bengtsson and colleagues were using anonymized data, but as mentioned before there is an opportunity to de-anonymized the data, where likelihood to identifiy people behind de-anonymized data increases according to amount of different kinds of data available regarding every single individual, length of period observed, accuracy of location data -it is not the same to access to mobile phone GPS data, GPS data related to cell towers, location data based on Wi-Fi access points,…-, public disclosure of the data,…

    It has to be highlighted that researchers in this particular case were delivered anonymized location data of "daily positions of SIM cards 42 days before the earthquake and 158 days after", and that "data for period one included the position of the mobile phone tower used by each SIM at the time of its first call each day. Data for period two included the position of the mobile phone tower used by each SIM at the time of each call. Digicel also shared maps of the network’s towers and coverage areas with the research team", and that as the paper remarks people were moving among differente places in Haiti as a consequence of an unpredicted event, in a context were people is much less predictable than in the case of permanent research on every day recurrent movements of people pointed by Ars Technica article referred in my previous comment.

    Of course the researchers were taking privacy into account, even when that did not guarantee without any doubt re-identification is possible. It seems that they have not shared publicly all data under scrutiny for the research, which could have given a chance for third parties to correlate above mentioned information with other public or privately available information sources and having enough time and technical and human resources available to de-anonymize the data. This is what "Broken promises of privacy" above mentioned paper is remarking citing several examples of investigations over de-anonymization of publicly available data.

    My comment was more focused on location data processing by telco operators and the disclosure it to third parties for research or emergency management services in the future, i.e. the desired consequence of the findings pointed out by the paper.

    Hope this will help for a better understaing of risks I was pointing regarding re-identification chances.

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