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Remaking the World with Phone Data

• David Talbot via

Cell phones generate tremendous amounts of human mobility and other data that can be particularly useful in the developing world to redesign transportation networks (see “African Bus Routes Redrawn Using Cell-Phone Data”) and provide a boon to epidemiology (see “Big Data from Cheap Phones”).

Ahead of a conference on the topic that starts Wednesday at MIT, a motherlode of research has been made public about how to use this data. For the past year, researchers around the world responded to a challenge dubbed Data for Development, in which the telecom giant Orange released 2.5 billion records from five million cell-phone users in Ivory Coast. A compendium of this work is the D4D book, holding all 850 pages of the submissions. The larger conference, called NetMob (now in its third year), also features papers based on cell phone data from other regions, described in this book of abstracts.  

Amid all the excitement about this growing field, one issue hasn’t be resolved: how to use data held by mobile carriers without violating the privacy of the phone owners. The D4D records, for example, were reworked to try to prevent anyone identifying the users, but there is no widely accepted way of doing this, and such projects are still on-off efforts. But at least for now we can bask in the promising research at the conference.

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