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How MIT Will Make Sense Of The Mobile Network That Ties The Planet Together

You’re carrying a cell phone right now that’s tracking your movements. Put the data from your phone along with everyone else’s, and you can find out a lot about how humanity operates at a global scale.

More than almost any other modern electronic device–the laptop, the tablet, the desktop–the cell phone has become ubiquitous across the planet. In some more developed countries, like China or Sweden, at least 98% of the population owns one. And with all that cell-phone usage comes reams of network data, which up until now has never been analyzed in depth.

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Now Ericcson, the world’s largest mobile telecommunications equipment vendor, is opening up its data to the MIT SENSEable City Lab to create visualizations of the global telecommunications network, or as MIT Professor Carlo Ratti calls it, “the signature of humanity.”

SENSEable City Lab’s look at U.S. cell-phone network data.

The SENSEable City Lab is well known for its visualizations of the connected world. One recent project analyzed data from anonymized health records to create a visualization of the relationships between space, geography, and health. Another analyzed mobile-phone calling patterns across the U.S., yielding visual data on how different states are connected by calls.

Analyzing cell-phone data on a global level is a significantly bigger task. “We’re finding new ways to visualize data,” says Ratti, the director of the SENSEable City Lab. But it will be worth it. “In the past few years, people have been looking at data from telecommunications networks to study human mobility and social networks,” he explains. “For the first time, we can actually do this across many countries.”

Ratti expects that the anonymized data provided by Ericcson will generate all sorts of expected–and unexpected–patterns. The sociology community has long assumed, for example, that the socioeconomic development of a country, city, or town is directly related to its communication structure (i.e., a well-off country might have a more open flow of information, or vice-versa). “For the first time, we can measure that,” says Ratti.

Another example: Ratti and his team can analyze how urban structure influences human mobility, since mobility patterns can be tracked using cell-phone networks. As a result, we’ll be able to see how people travel in countries around the world–and how that travel correlates with energy consumption, obesity, and more.

Ericcson is excited at the prospect of having a visual representation of its data, and the data may prove useful for the company, too. “Our job at Ericcson is to build networks to support what’s happening in the world today. This might give us insight into how to deliver better networks to customers,” says Dwight Witherspoon, director of communications operations at Ericsson.

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Ratti believes the data could have larger implications: “There’s a goldmine of data for science, for a better understanding of society.” Expect the SENSEable City Lab to emerge with a visual analysis of that data sometime in the next six to nine months.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more

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