Over the past 18 months, I've become interested in projects that use data, particularly aggregated, anonymized location data from cell phones, to create indicators of population well-being.  Public-private data partnerships offer us the opportunity to achieve feedback on the effectiveness of policy changes in near real-time and more cheaply than existing policy measurement programs. The same data used by the private sector to gain insights into customers and markets can be used to define public vulnerabilities and measure potential solutions.  This kind of research and data science will significantly improve our ability to create effective public policy.  

The articles and books below are ones I found interesting or useful during my research.  I will update this post as I find new information.

Socioeconomic Indicators

Title:  On The Relationship Between Socio-Economic Factors and Cell Phone Usage

Authors: Frıas-Martinez V. and Virsesa J

In 2012, researchers were able to create a method of approximating socioeconomic indicators from calling patterns based on the expense of calls, the reciprocity of communications, physical distance with his/her contacts, and the geographical areas around which people move.


Title:  Network Diversity and Economic Development

Authors: Eagle N., Macy M., Claxton R.,

In 2010, researchers were able to prove that the an individual’s relationships correlated with the economic development of communities. Researchers were able to validate an essential assumption that more diverse ties correlate with better access to social and economic opportunities.  This particular finding could be particularly relevant to policy makers interested in combatting poverty.


Title:  Ubiquitous Sensing for Mapping Poverty in Developing Countries

Authors: Smith C., Mashhadi A., Capra L.,

Researchers used cell phone call records to map poverty levels in the Cote d’Ivoire.  

 Map of poverty estimates based on the diversity of connections between mobile phone antenna.

Map of poverty estimates based on the diversity of connections between mobile phone antenna.


Title:  Finger on the Pulse: Identifying Deprivation using Transit Flow Analysis.

Authors: Smith. C., Quercia, D., Capra L.

A map of London colored by an index of deprivation based on geolocation data from London’s Rail System.  

Title: On the relationship between socio-economic factors and cell phone usage

Authors: Vanessa Frias-Martinez and Jesus Virsenda

Researchers approximated census variables from cell phone records.

Title: Prediction of Socioeconomic Levels Using Cell Phone Records

Authors: Victor Soto, Vanessa Frias-Martinez, Jesus Virseda, Enrique Frias-Martinez

Information derived from the aggregated use of cell phone records can be used to identify the socioeconomic levels of a population, correct prediction rates of over 80% for an urban population of around 500,000 citizens.

Title: The Hidden Image of the City: Sensing Community Well-Being from Urban Mobility

Authors: Neal Lathia, Daniele Quercia, Jon Crowcroft

Test whether urban mobility—as measured by public transport fare collection sensors—is a viable proxy for the visibility of a city’s communities. We validate this hypothesis by examining the correlation between London urban flow of public transport and census-based indices of the well-being of London’s census areas. We find that not only are the two correlated, but a number of insights into the flow between areas of varying social standing can be uncovered with readily available transport data. For example, we find that deprived areas tend to preferentially attract people living in other deprived areas, suggesting a segregation effect.

Title: Poverty on the Cheap: Estimating Poverty Maps Using Aggregated Mobile Communication Networks

Authors: C Smith-Clarke

They outlined and tested a methodology for estimating poverty levels and validated their results. They have massive data collection issues:  “Difficulty in obtaining data currently prevents us from establishing the global applicability of our work”

Title: Estimating Migration Flows Using Online Search Data

Author: Global Pulse

This study explored whether online search data could be analyzed to understand migration flows and produce a proxy for migration statistics, using Australia as case study

Title: Analysing Seasonal Mobility Patterns Using Mobile Phone Data

Author: Global Pulse

This project quantified seasonal mobility of populations in different regions of Senegal, based on analysis of anonymised mobile phone activity data.

Title: Using Mobile Phone Data and Airtime Credit Purchases to Estimate Food Security

Author: Global Pulse

This study assessed the potential use of mobile phone data as a proxy for food security. Results showed high correlations between airtime credit purchases and survey results referring to consumption of several food items. In addition, models based on anonymised mobile phone calling patterns and airtime credit purchases were shown to accurately estimate multidimensional poverty indicators.

Transportation Health Indicators


Title: AllAboard: a System for Exploring Urban Mobility and Optimizing Public Transport Using Cellphone Data

Authors: Berlingerio M., Calabrese F., Di Lorenzo G., Nair R., Pinelli F., and Sbodio M.,

Researchers at IBM’s Allabord Project used call record data mapped against 85 bus routes in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire’s largest city, to suggest a solution to the city’s congestion.


Title: Sustainable Urban Transportation: Performance Indicators and Some Analytical Approaches

Authors: Black, J., Paez, A., and Suthanaya, P.


Public Health Indicators

Title: Quantifying the Effect of Human Mobility on Malaria

Authors: Wesolowski A.,  Eagle N., Tatem A., Smith D., Noor A., Snow R.,  Buckee C., (2012)

In 2012, using anonymized cell phone locations, researchers were able to model malaria transmission routes in Kenya.


Title: An Agent-Based Model of Epidemic Spread using Human Mobility and Social Network Information.

Authors: Enrique Frıas-Martinez , Graham Williamson, Vanessa Frıas-Martınez

In 2009, after an H1N1 flu epidemic, researchers used cell phone information to measure the impact of government policies designed to limit the movement of residents in affected areas.

Post-Crisis Well Being Indicators

Title: Improved Response to Disasters and Outbreaks by Tracking Population Movements with Mobile Phone Network Data: A Post-Earthquake Geospatial Study in Haiti

Authors: Bengtsson L., Lu X., Thorson A., Garfield R., Schreeb J.,

Using cell phone data, researchers in Haiti studied anonymized population movements before the 2010 earthquake and afterwards.  This information provided a more accurate accounting of displaced populations than the Haitian Civil Protection Agency.


Using Mobile Phone Activity for Disaster Management During Floods

Author: Global Pulse

This project combined the analysis of mobile phone activity data with remote sensing data during severe flooding in the Mexican state of Tabasco as a method to inform emergency management response.

Data and Privacy Design

Title: k-Anonymity: A Model for Protecting Privacy.

Authors: Bengtsson L., Lu X., Thorson A., Garfield R., Schreeb J.,

Researchers created a model called k-anonymity and set of policies for releasing private data with scientific guarantees that individuals who are the subjects of the data cannot be re-identified.


Title: ℓ-Diversity: Privacy Beyond k-Anonymity

Authors: Ashwin Machanavajjhala, Johannes Gehrke, Daniel Kifer, Muthuramakrishnan Venkitasubramaniam

Researchers identify vulnerabilities in the model developed in the study above and propose a new privacy definition called l-diversity.


Title: Mapping the Risk-Utility Landscape of Mobile Data for Development & Humanitarian Action

This project assessed the impact that aggregating mobile data to protect privacy has upon the utility of the data for transportation planning and pandemic control and prevention. The proposed methodology allows for determining what level of data aggregation is the minimum required to adequately protect individual privacy while preserving its value for policy planning and crisis response.



The Responsive City

The New Science of Cities State of the art, academic, summary of modelling how cities function, with an emphasis on the flow of people.

Architecture: A Modern View  Richard Rogers’ manifesto, briefly - buildings should be sustainable, and that implies outliving the purpose they were designed for. Technology can help keep purposes flexible. The same approach should apply at a city scale. The social consequences of a project shouldn’t be viewed in isolation to the project.

A Manifesto for Sustainable Cities  Building ‘sustainable’ cities from scratch by definition isn’t sustainable - you need a path that evolves existing cities in a sustainable direction.

Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design  After decades of unchecked sprawl, more people than ever are moving back to the city. Dense urban living has been prescribed as a panacea for the environmental and resource crises of our time. But is it better or worse for our happiness? Are subways, sidewalks, and tower dwelling an improvement on the car-dependence of sprawl?

Social Physics (Sandy Pentland)  From one of the world’s leading data scientists, a landmark tour of the new science of idea flow, offering revolutionary insights into the mysteries of collective intelligence and social influence

Against the smart city (The city is here for you to use)  "A cogent debunking of the smart city. Adam Greenfield breaks down the term with wit and clarity, exposing that the smart city may be neither very smart nor very city at all. An insightful, timely and refreshing read that will make you rethink the city of tomorrow."

The Atlas of the Real World: Mapping the Way We Live  Digitally modified maps or cartograms depict the areas and countries of the world not by their physical size, but by their demographic importance on a vast range of subjects, from basic data on population, health, and occupation to how many toys we import and who’s eating the most vegetables.

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness  We are all susceptible to biases that can lead us to make bad decisions that make us poorer, less healthy and less happy. And, as Thaler and Sunstein show, no choice is ever presented to us in a neutral way. By knowing how people think, we can make it easier for them to choose what is best for them, their families and society. Using dozens of eye-opening examples the authors demonstrate how to nudge us in the right directions, without restricting our freedom of choice. Nudge offers a unique new way of looking at the world for individuals and governments alike.

Programming Collective Intelligence  Programming Collective Intelligence takes you into the world of machine learning and statistics, and explains how to draw conclusions about user experience, marketing, personal tastes, and human behavior in general -- all from information that you and others collect every day. Each algorithm is described clearly and concisely with code that can immediately be used on your website, blog, Wiki, or specialized application.

Beyond Transparency  Cross-disciplinary survey of the open data landscape, in which practitioners share their own stories of what they’ve accomplished with open data.



This course focuses on how technology is used to engage with the public to support decision-making and the creative ways that every-day people are using technology to improve their cities.  Students will be examining tools for analyzing the city. Then we move into exploring the fascinating ways that cities are using real-time, technology. You'll hear from technological innovators and thought leaders about all of these topics. You will get to engage around a topic you are most interested in to create a project in your own city.


Research groups/people


Sandy Pentland at MIT

Senseable City Lab at MIT

Urban Design Studies Unit at U Strathclyde

Renaud Lambiotte and Vincent Blondel at U Namur & UCSB


Benthem Crouwel - Five archetypes for a changing world - exhibition at Berlin Architektur Gallerie

Shows that even though the ‘names’ of public spaces are the same as in the 19th century, their meaning and vocation have changed.

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