The mobile phone, often marketed as an essential tool for people on the go, now offers a new possibility for scientists: keeping track of where people are going.
In an experiment published Wednesday in the journal Nature, researchers at Boston-based Northeastern University used mobile telephones to track the patterns of human movement.
The study monitored the movement of 100,000 people over several weeks based on the signals their phones sent to transmitter towers, either through phone calls, e-mails or text messages.
The researchers found that while different people travel different distances, the breakdown of their trips is relatively uniform, with most people tending to make frequent migrations to the same few locations, with occasional longer trips to far-off destinations.
"Despite the diversity of their travel history, humans follow simple reproducable patterns," they wrote.
The findings could help inform studies on any phenomena affected by human movement, including how diseases and epidemics spread or how urban planning decisions will influence traffic congestion, the researchers said.
In an editorial in the same issue, the journal Nature said the study is notable for its methodology, and suggests the use of mobile phones as a tracker for such research opens the door for social scientists "to make measurements that are often as precise as those in the 'hard' sciences."
"It’s not an overstatement to say that these tools are fostering a whole new type of social science," the journal said.
The researchers obtained the data from mobile phone networks, but did not have access to any individual’s identity, for privacy reasons.
Some private companies, including Atlanta and Toronto-based IntelliOne, have already begun using cellphones to track traffic patterns, and similarly have tried to avoid privacy concerns by stripping data of any information that would identify a user.
IntelliOne reached an agreement with Rogers Wireless last November to use the company's data on the location of the cellphones in its network to create a real-time map of traffic congestion across Canada. That product, originally slated for release in early 2008, has yet to come out but is expected to be released soon, said Rogers Wireless spokesperson Odette Coleman.