Mobile Data Can Be Used to Predict Population Movement During Natural Disasters

NASA Goddard Photo and Video/CC BY 2.0

The world has seen some horrible natural disasters over the past decade and scientists expect non-earthquake natural disasters to increase with climate change. It's predicted that damages from natural disasters will triple by the end of the century and the number of people displaced each year extreme weather like hurricanes, floods and heat waves is climbing each year.

As we've seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake, relief efforts are absolutely crucial for the people affected by these events, but they don't always go smoothly.

A new study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences details how mobile data can be used to predict population movements during and after natural disasters. This information could allow relief efforts to be planned for the right place and time, helping those in need more quickly and efficiently.

Researchers at the Karolinska Institutet analyzed the mobile data of two million anonymous cell phone users from Digicel, the largest mobile operator in Haiti, to look for patterns in population movement before and after the 2010 earthquake. What they found was that, after a disaster, people tend to go where their families and friends are.

"We can see by the mobile data that where people were over Christmas and New Year, which was just before the earthquake, tended to be the place where they returned to afterwards," said Xin Lu, one of the lead researchers.

The other thing they found was that the everyday movements of people before and after the earthquake were highly regular, which could lead to very accurate predictions. As Phys.org reports, "The team also studied the everyday movements of people and found that although people moved greater distances after the earthquake compared to before, their daily movement patterns were extremely regular. Knowing a person's movements during the first three months after the earthquake, the researchers were able to show that it is possible to predict with 85 per cent probability the location of this person on a particular day in the ensuing period."

Since this discovery, the researchers have founded Flowminder.org, a non-profit organization that aims to provide analyses of population movements for free to relief agencies after disasters. This type of service would be helpful in the event of any natural disaster, but the predictions could be especially useful for extreme weather events we can see coming, like hurricanes.

Tags: Cell Phones | Natural Disasters | Technology