A new study, reported in the New York Times, tracked population movements in post-earthquake Haiti using cell phone data.  The article grabbed my attention because one of the authors, Richard Garfield (whom I have done numerous projects with and who has his own Wikipedia entry!), had told me about this very study just a few months ago.

Over dinner in New York’s Little India he explained how the largest cell phone company in Haiti provided him with anonymized cell tower records.  As many people are aware, cell phones–even those without GPS–report their locations back to cell towers at regular intervals.  By tracking the daily position of the phones before and after the earthquake they were able to determine that 20% of Port-Au-Prince’s population had left the capitol within 19 days of the disaster.

They used plenty of solid math in the analysis and amazingly did it all without resorting to spatial statistics.  They have some nice map-based visualizations but I’ve been meaning to get the data from Dr. Garfield so I can attempt something similar to the amazing work done by the NYC Data Mafia on the WikiLeaks Afghanistan data.  Though I don’t promise anything nearly as good.

It is also worth noting that they did this at a fraction of the cost and time of an extensive UN survey.  That survey only had about 2,500 respondents whereas the cell phone project incorporated around 1.9 million people without them spending valuable time with an interviewer.

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Jared Lander is the Chief Data Scientist of Lander Analytics a New York data science firm, Adjunct Professor at Columbia University, Organizer of the New York Open Statistical Programming meetup and the New York and Washington DC R Conferences and author of R for Everyone.

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