A new report from Columbia University and the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, offers evidence that in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, anonymous cell phone data helped aid groups target emergency supplies to those most in need, BBC News reports.
Published in the journal PLoS Medicine, the report, Improved Response to Disasters and Outbreaks by Tracking Population Movements with Mobile Phone Network Data: A Post-Earthquake Geospatial Study in Haiti, relates how in the days after the quake researchers from Columbia and the Karolinska Institute asked Digicel, the country's biggest mobile operator, to provide anonymous data collected from its phone towers, enabling researchers to estimate the number of people who had fled Port-au-Prince as well as to pinpoint specific concentrations of displaced people. International aid organizations subsequently used that information to deliver supplies to targeted locations. Similarly, after a cholera outbreak in the country in the fall, researchers sent additional data to aid groups that helped them to determine where preventive efforts should be deployed first.
Among other things, the report found that approximately 630,000 people left the capital city of Port-au-Prince in the nineteen days after the quake. The report's findings also were consistent with a United Nations-funded study conducted six months after the quake, leading the report's authors to conclude that, with more than a hundred million people affected by natural disasters or humanitarian crises every year, the use of mobile phone data could become routine in future disaster relief situations.
"This is a big problem," said Linus Bengtsson, a physician and graduate student at the Karolinska Institute and one of the report's co-authors. "However, by using data from mobile operators, we now have a good chance to rapidly identify the movement of people in emergency situations."