Skip to Content

Glimpses of a World Revealed by Cell-Phone Data

An examination of simple cell-phone records reveals maps of poverty levels, ethnic divides, and the movements of sports fans.

Around the world, some mobile carriers have been releasing anonymized records of cell-phone data to researchers.

The data releases are not all the same, but they can include records of which phones connected to which cell phone towers, providing a trace of caller movements; with whom the connection was made, providing a map of social networks; and what purchases were made, even through simple phones, providing a glimpse of economic activity. In many cases, such data is unavailable from any other source.

The results—even from limited data sets—can be dramatic. This slide show shows four examples of work going on, from tracking the movement of soccer fans in Argentina to creating detailed maps of poverty levels in Ivory Coast. They are a small sampling of the many new papers presented at a conference on the topic last week at MIT. Part of this was from a challenge called Data for Development, in which the telecom giant Orange released 2.5 billion records from five million cell-phone users in Ivory Coast.

“The use of this data for development is just exploding right now, and we will only see more and more situations where individuals work with operators,” says Caroline Buckee, an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health who is working on malaria models.

Indeed, some of the most promising applications for such efforts involve merging mobility data with other data sets, such as disease incidence and transportation routes. The results show how mobility patterns may influence, for example, the spread of malaria (see “Big Data from Cheap Phones”) and provide insights into how to optimize a bus system in a developing-world city (see “African Bus Routes Redrawn Using Cell Phone Data”).

Keep Reading

Most Popular

A Roomba recorded a woman on the toilet. How did screenshots end up on Facebook?

Robot vacuum companies say your images are safe, but a sprawling global supply chain for data from our devices creates risk.

A startup says it’s begun releasing particles into the atmosphere, in an effort to tweak the climate

Make Sunsets is already attempting to earn revenue for geoengineering, a move likely to provoke widespread criticism.

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2023

Every year, we pick the 10 technologies that matter the most right now. We look for advances that will have a big impact on our lives and break down why they matter.

These exclusive satellite images show that Saudi Arabia’s sci-fi megacity is well underway

Weirdly, any recent work on The Line doesn’t show up on Google Maps. But we got the images anyway.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.