When major disasters like earthquakes, fires, floods, hurricanes, tsunamis, and giant alien killer robot invasions strike, they tend to leave vast swaths of people — estimated at an annual 100 million (and their pets) — homeless and in need of assistance. Unfortunately, as was the case during the devastating earthquake and following cholera epidemic in Haiti, it’s difficult for humanitarian aid to reach the people most in need of it when workers just can’t find them — even when there are theoretically enough resources to go around to everyone. Fortunately, this problem may have a solution thanks to work done by researchers recently at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, and Columbia University in New York.

Mobile Phone Data Helps Relief Workers Aid Disaster VictimsBy monitoring anonymous signals from two million cell phones with the help of Digicel, the largest cell phone operator in Haiti, the scientists were able to track the movement patterns of these signals and the population that moved with them. They were then able to signal relief workers on the ground to anticipate where influxes of migration would occur and adapt their efforts to aid the population appropriately. Before this method was developed, humanitarian relief workers only had estimated migration patterns by which to attempt a strategy to reach those in need, but comparing the more accurate data assembled by monitoring cell phone signals, it quickly became apparent that such estimated patterns were next to useless.

Research team leader Dr. Linus Bengtsson says: “Our work was very much appreciated by the aid organisations on the ground, and we believe that the method can bring about important improvements in humanitarian relief and development cooperation. We’re now setting up a non-profit organisation to carry out this type of analyses on a routine basis during future disasters.”

The research team’s findings are published in the recent issue of PLoS Medicine: Improved Response to Disasters and Outbreaks by Tracking Population Movements with Mobile Phone Network Data: A Post-Earthquake Geospatial Study in Haiti