Population movements in the wake of disasters make it difficult to deliver the right amount of humanitarian aid to the right places. During the earthquake and ensuing cholera epidemic in Haiti, researchers at Karolinska Institutet, Sweden, and Columbia University, USA, developed a new method for solving this problem - they monitored the continual movements of two million anonymous mobile phones and reported directly to the humanitarian relief organisations on the ground. The method, which is now presented in the scientific journal PLoS Medicine, may have a major impact on future disaster relief.
Every year, over 100 million people are affected by disasters, and many of them move from their homes, leaving them in dire need of help. Despite the huge sums of money spent on delivering humanitarian aid to disaster-struck areas, there is often a severe lack of basic information on the locations of the people in need of help as well as of the number of people who have left the disaster area. This seriously hampers aid coordinators in their efforts to deliver the right amount of supplies to the right places, even when sufficient resources are available.
"This is a huge problem, but by using data supplied by mobile phone operators, we now have a good chance of charting the movements of populations in disaster situations," says Dr Linus Bengtsson, doctoral student at Karolinska Institutet, who has led the development of the method.
After the Haiti earthquake of January 2010, there were reports of large migrations of people out of the capital Port-au-Prince. Researchers at Karolinska Institutet and Columbia University in New York sought the cooperation of Digicel, the largest mobile phone operator in Haiti, and started to monitor the daily movements of two million mobile phones by analysing anonymised data on which mobile phone towers were used to make calls. They then reported their analyses directly to the UN and other aid organisations working in Haiti.
Later that year, Haiti was struck by a serious outbreak of cholera.
"We rapidly received mobile phone data and within 12 hours we were able to send out analyses describing which areas had received people from the cholera outbreak zone in order to provide information on areas at potentially increased risk of new outbreaks," says Dr Bengtsson.
The results of their analyses are now published in PLoS Medicine. In their paper, the researchers estimate that over 600,000 people had left Port-au-Prince 19 days after the earthquake, and trace the migration patterns over the country on maps. They also show how the movements of the mobile phones matched those of a large UN-led study conducted in a stable phase six months later. At the same time, their analyses differed widely from the estimated migration patterns that were used during the initial phase of the relief response.
"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," says Dr Bengtsson. "We're now setting up a non-profit organisation to carry out this type of analyses on a routine basis during future disasters."