Feeds

Haiti study: Mass mobile phone tracking can be laudable

You'll wish the gov had huge snoop powers - in a quake

Eight steps to building an HP BladeSystem

A new study uses the movements of mobile phones during the Haiti earthquake, and cholera epidemic, to accurately show where people went during the disasters, and where help should be delivered.

Studying location data stored by Haiti's biggest network operator, Digicel, Swedish boffins got more accurate estimates of population movements over the period of both earthquake and epidemic than rescue workers on the ground, demonstrating the value of anonymous real-time tracking during national disasters.

The research is published in the peer-reviewed PLoS Medicine journal, and provides a detailed breakdown of the data gathered by the Swedish researchers (one of whom was American, to be fair).

It might seem obvious that the location of every mobile phone would tell you where the population was, but proving that required extensive analysis of the data, as well as adjustments for the penetration of mobile telephones and the demographic differences involved.

The first problem is that not everyone in Haiti has a mobile. The earthquake study tracked 1.9 million SIMs, having discarded numbers that had not made a call in the preceding month (to exclude rescue workers) and those that did not make a call afterwards (euphemistically described as "lost").

Around 200,000 of those SIMs exited Port-au-Prince following the earthquake, which, given the mobile penetration of just under one-third, multiplies up to 630,000 people leaving the capital.

That tallies well with official UN figures, compiled through questionnaires following the disaster, but diverges from estimates made at the time (which were based on a counting of buses on the roads exiting the town).

Even more interesting were the results from the cholera epidemic, which were compiled in less than 12 hours and demonstrated that such a process could provide real-time advice to healthcare workers and governments in containing and treating, as well as tracking, outbreaks.

The researchers suggest that localised SMS could have been used to advise people within affected areas, or to discourage them from travelling elsewhere, as well as to let the authorities know where problems might surface next.

That does, of course, require close integration between the operators' systems and those of the government, which will make many people uncomfortable. Real-time tracking, even by cell site, would have been valuable (for example) to the police during the recent UK riots. That data is already being used retrospectively to work out where people were, and with better integration it could show where people are.

The Chinese government recently launched a research project working out how such data could be effectively used in urban planning and traffic management, but if it were to be available in real-time it could also be used to police demonstrations, football matches and all sorts.

This needn't be an invasion of privacy – anonymous data is still valuable – but we have to decide, as a society, if we think that allowing governments access to the location of their citizens is a risk worth taking in exchange for the benefits it gives. ®

Securing Web Applications Made Simple and Scalable

More from The Register

next story
Auntie remains MYSTIFIED by that weekend BBC iPlayer and website outage
Still doing 'forensics' on the caching layer – Beeb digi wonk
Apple orders huge MOUNTAIN of 80 MILLION 'Air' iPhone 6s
Bigger, harder trouser bulges foretold for fanbois
GoTenna: How does this 'magic' work?
An ideal product if you believe the Earth is flat
Telstra to KILL 2G network by end of 2016
GSM now stands for Grave-Seeking-Mobile network
Seeking LTE expert to insert small cells into BT customers' places
Is this the first step to a FON-a-like 4G network?
Yorkshire cops fail to grasp principle behind BT Fon Wi-Fi network
'Prevent people that are passing by to hook up to your network', pleads plod
BlackBerry: Toss the server, mate... BES is in the CLOUD now
BlackBerry Enterprise Services takes aim at SMEs - but there's a catch
Bring back error correction, say Danish 'net boffins
We don't need no steenkin' TCP/IP retransmission and the congestion it causes
prev story

Whitepapers

Designing a Defense for Mobile Applications
Learn about the various considerations for defending mobile applications - from the application architecture itself to the myriad testing technologies.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Top 8 considerations to enable and simplify mobility
In this whitepaper learn how to successfully add mobile capabilities simply and cost effectively.
Seven Steps to Software Security
Seven practical steps you can begin to take today to secure your applications and prevent the damages a successful cyber-attack can cause.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.