Populations on the run during disasters can be tracked by cellphone signals, which could help guide life-saving aid to the right places, a new study has concluded.
For the study, which appeared last week in the journal PLoS Medicine, researchers from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and Columbia University formulated their idea after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and then tried it out in practice during the cholera epidemic that began there 10 months later.
Refugees can put their lives at risk if they flee beyond the reach of food, water and medical care. Relief agencies guessing where to set up tents must rely on sometimes flawed reports from witnesses, traffic monitors, reporters and satellite and aerial photos.
The researchers collected data on the transmitting towers relaying signals from 1.9 million cellphones. They concluded that 20 percent of the population of the capital, Port-au-Prince, fled after the quake, with most people going to Les Cayes, Leogane and Saint-Marc.
That roughly matched the results of an expensive United Nations survey of 2,500 households.
In the cholera outbreak, which began near Saint-Marc, the researchers tracked cellphone use in real time. Within 12 hours they were able to tell relief agencies where people had gone, which suggested where new outbreaks could start, said Dr. Linus Bengtsson, the study’s lead author.
In that case, only about 3 percent of people fled, many for Port-au-Prince; others moved inland.
Dr. Bengtsson’s group is now creating a nonprofit organization to track cellphone use in future disasters.
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