Surprising Findings: Using Mobile Phones to Predict Population Displacement After Major Disasters

Rising concerns over the consequences of mass refugee flows during several crises in the late 1970′s is what prompted the United Nations (UN) to call for the establishment of early warning systems for the first time. “In 1978-79 for example, the United Nations and UNHCR were clearly overwhelmed by and unprepared for the mass influx of Indochinese refugees in South East Asia. The number of boat people washed onto the beaches there seriously challenged UNHCR’s capability to cope. One of the issues was the lack of advance information. The result was much human suffering, including many deaths. It took too long for emergency assistance by intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations to reach the sites” (Druke 2012 PDF).

Forty years later, my colleagues at Flowminder are using location data from mobile phones to nowcast and predict population displacement after major disasters. Focusing on the devastating 2010 Haiti earthquake, the team analyzed the movement of 1.9 million mobile users before and after the earthquake. Naturally, the Flowminder team expected that the mass exodus from Port-au-Prince would be rather challenging to predict. Surprisingly, however, the predictability of people’s movements remained high and even increased during the three-month period following the earthquake.

The team just released their findings in a peer-reviewed study entitled: “Predictability of population displacement after the 2010 Haiti earthquake” (PNAS 2012). As the analysis reveals, “the destinations of people who left the capital during the first three weeks after the earthquake was highly correlated with their mobility patterns during normal times, and specifically with the locations in which people had significant social bonds, as measured by where they spent Christmas and New Year holidays” (PNAS 2012).

For the people who left Port-au-Prince, the duration of their stay outside the city, as well as the time for their return, all followed a skewed, fat-tailed distribution. The findings suggest that population movements during disasters may be significantly more predictable than previously thought” (PNAS 2012). Intriguingly, the analysis also revealed the period of time that people in Port-au-Prince waited to leave the city (and then return) was “power-law distributed, both during normal days and after the earthquake, albeit with different exponents (PNAS 2012).” Clearly then, “[p]eople’s movements are highly influenced by their historic behavior and their social bonds, and this fact remained even after one of the most severe disasters in history” (PNAS 2012).


I wonder how this approach could be used in combination with crowdsourced satellite imagery analysis on the one hand and with Agent Based Models on the other. In terms of crowdsourcing, I have in mind the work carried out by the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) in partnership with UNHCR and Tomnod in Somalia last year. SBTF volunteers (“Mapsters”) tagged over a quarter million features that looked liked IDP shelters in under 120 hours, yielding a triangulated country of approximately 47,500 shelters.

In terms of Agent Based Models (ABMs), some colleagues and I  worked on “simulating population displacements following a crisis”  back in 2006 while at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI). We decided to use an Agent Based Model because the data on population movement was simply not within our reach. Moreover, we were particularly interested in modeling movements of ethnic populations after a political crisis and thus within the context of a politically charged environment.

So we included a preference for “safety in numbers” within the model. This parameter can easily be tweaked to reflect a preference for moving to locations that allow for the maintenance of social bonds as identified in the Flowminder study. The figure above lists all the parameters we used in our simple decision theoretic model.

The output below depicts the Agent Based Model in action. The multi-colored panels on the left depict the geographical location of ethnic groups at a certain period of time after the crisis escalates. The red panels on the right depict the underlying social networks and bonds that correspond to the geographic distribution just described. The main variable we played with was the size or magnitude of the sudden onset crisis to determine whether and how people might move differently around various ethnic enclaves. The study long with the results are available in this PDF.

In sum, it would be interesting to carry out Flowminder’s analysis in combination with crowdsourced satellite imagery analysis and live sensor data feeding into an Agent Base Model. Dissertation, anyone?

7 responses to “Surprising Findings: Using Mobile Phones to Predict Population Displacement After Major Disasters

  1. God comments and interesting approach. Could this be systematically used for big organizations in order to make predictions. You have explained a good methodology (well the difficult part does not need to come out !) that could be applied in emergencies. Has anyone done a re4view of the methods that are currently utilized that could be set”up to date”with new approaches to systematize response and analysis?

  2. Pingback: New questions on the market! « Future Perfect

  3. As always thank you for this piece.
    I second Robert’s comment. It would be lovely to have a panel discussion on IDP movements, crowdsourcing tools and the methodologies in the upcoming ICCM 2012.
    Mobile technology with Linked Data integration might be one of the way forwards. What do you think?

  4. Pingback: Using E-Mail Data to Estimate International Migration Rates | iRevolution

  5. Pingback: How to Create Resilience Through Big Data | iRevolution

  6. Pingback: Humanitarian Response in 2025 | iRevolution

  7. Pingback: 2014 Crisis Communications Forecast: Mobile Technology is Where Its At

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s