Mobile phone tracking could revolutionise disaster aid response

Mobile phone tracking could be used to better coordinate aid distribution during natural disasters. Flickr/United Nations Photo

Mobile phones could track human movement during disasters or disease outbreaks, directing authorities in real time to where aid is needed most, new research has found.

Natural disasters displace tens of millions of people every year. But often governments and aid agencies have difficulty knowing where people have moved to, slowing down their response.

A new study used mobile phone data to track movement from the site of the Haiti earthquake in January last year.

The researchers mapped the locations of mobile phones which made at least one phone call in the month before the earthquake and at least one call in the last month of the study, several months later. A total of 1.9 million unique mobile phone sim cards were used in the study.

The research found that movement estimates using mobile phone data were more accurate than guesses made immediately after the earthquake.

The authors said that tracking mobile phones could revolutionise disaster response.

“[The] results suggest that the speed and accuracy of estimates of population movements during disasters and infectious disease outbreaks may be revolutionised in areas with high mobile phone coverage,” the authors wrote.

Dr Matt Duckham from the Department of Infrastructure and Engineering at the University of Melbourne said the study raises questions about privacy and when it is acceptable to track movements.

“Emergencies trump privacy,” he said. “There’s the expectation that in an emergency you’ll give up your privacy so that people know where to go to help.”

Chris Chesher, senior lecturer in digital technologies at the University of Sydney said that if the infrastructure for tracking locations exists, it could be abused.

“As a policy question, setting up an infrastructure to provide detailed coverage of population and population movements, [would] have to be treated with a lot of care,” he said.

Dr Wally Smith from the Department of Information Systems in Melbourne said using mobile phones to track people could be useful, as long as there was enough information on the numbers of people using a mobile and how they were represented in the area.

“For example, in a bushfire situation, people that are using a mobile phone might be more likely to evacuate because they might have received a message,” he said.

“Whereas people who don’t have a mobile phone with them, they might be the ones who aren’t evacuating.”