Tracking Population Movement in Emergencies Using Mobile Phone Network Data

Project Name: Tracking Population Movement in Emergencies Using Mobile Phone Network Data

Project Status: Awarded

Point of Contact: Richard Garfield, Team Lead for Assessment, Information, and Surveillance

Center: Center for Global Health

Keywords: Surveillance, Population, Migration, Emergency, Disaster, Mobile, mHealth, Displacement

Project Description: A major challenge in sudden-onset emergencies is identifying the magnitude and location of population movements. This information is essential for determining the needs of the affected population, strategically responding to those needs, and monitoring trends in morbidity and mortality. While it is especially problematic in the international humanitarian emergencies that the Emergency Response and Recovery Branch (ERRB) typically responds to, it is also a challenge domestically in large emergencies like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.

In 2010, we used mobile phone network data to retrospectively identify the magnitude of population displacement, areas of concentration, and the timing of returns following the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Our analysis of these data was able to demonstrate where people went, where they concentrated, and when they returned to their prior areas of residence. Our estimated geographic distribution of population movements from Port-au-Prince corresponded well with results from a large retrospective, population-based UN survey. Attempts to follow-up this novel proof-of-concept approach in subsequent disasters in several countries since have been unsuccessful. This is largely because the standard operational procedures, methods of analysis, and non-disclosure agreements need to be in place prior to a disaster in order for telecommunications companies to share these data in the acute phase of a disaster.

Our project will advance the use of mobile phone network data for population estimation by addressing challenges in data collection and analysis. We propose to negotiate with the GSM Association and mobile phone providers in one international priority country with frequent disasters, as well as with one or more providers in the United States, to set up such agreements and working procedures. We will establish these agreements through discussions carried out with select company executives, create and execute non-disclosure agreements, and receive, process, and display the results of dummy data from each of these organizations. Through this process, we will identify efficient ways to receive and process data, define analysis requirements, create novel data display options, and address confidentiality concerns. Our project will include a pilot test of our project procedures, data collection and analysis, and information visualization. This pilot will be conducted during a planned event with anticipated mass population movement.

This project will provide experiences working with domestic and international mobile phone providers. This will be summarized in a report documenting the technical and interpersonal conditions needed to make such systems work with a portfolio of prior data transfer, analysis, and display experiences. This will leave us ready to act more effectively when a real disaster strikes one of these areas in the future, and will help lay a framework for further expansion in other disaster-prone areas.

For more information about this project, please contact the CHIIC at or Brian Lee at

Page last reviewed: February 15, 2019