Predicting People Movement after a Disaster

by | May 21, 2013 | ICT4D, Projects |

The Flowminder Foundation have been discovering some fascinating insights into the movement of people after disaster.  The team in Sweden have analysed the data of people using their mobile phones before and after a disaster – the Haiti earthquake and the civil war in Cote D’Ivoire.  The result?  People move in predictable patterns after a disaster, which are similar to the patterns they move in prior to the disaster.  You can read about their findings as reported by Fast Company in their Fast CoLabs here.

Of course, this is early days in this research and there are issues with it – to their own admission, the information is limited to those who have and use mobile phones.  As the article states, “One limitation of mobile phone monitoring is that the most vulnerable groups, such as pregnant women, the elderly, and the poorest people are least likely to have phones.”

I find the whole area of research incredibly fascinating, scary, and powerful.  .  It’s an incredible reminder of the information all mobile phone users are sharing with mobile phone companies and likely marketing companies.  There is no doubt this information will be used in a whole host of interesting and scary ways in the future.  Understanding how people move during and after a disaster can be helpful for aid agencies in planning and responding to disasters, however in the same way, the information can be quite useful for people wanting to harm or abduct people impacted by a disaster.  Disasters have long be ripe abduction grounds of children and other vulnerable groups, predicting where people will move could sadly be used by folk to increase the abduction rates.

New research like this is bound to raise questions about ethics, privacy laws, and what is and isn’t appropriate in a disaster.  The realm of possibility will always be greater than the debated ethics/philosophy realm as what is possible has far outstretched our ability to think whether or not it is “good or ill/ helpful or not”.  I like what Eric Reis said in a completely different context in his book “the Lean Startup”.  In talking about product development, he says that the question is no longer “can this product be built” as in our world today most products can be built, the more appropriate question is “should this product be built.”  And yet, it is often by taking steps in a certain direction that we discover something completely unexpected or previously not even dreamt of.  Ethics and discovery tend to be uncomfortable bed fellows.

As the article states, “Despite their success, not everyone is easily convinced. Persuading mobile operators to release their data requires getting past legal obstacles, and persuading relief agencies to trust predictions based on the data and then act has not been easy.”  There will always be sceptics worrying about the ill-use of opportunities and there will always be those pushing the boat out and challenging the current accepted thinking.  We need both.  We also need forums where we can gather and debate with each other.


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