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Joyce joined The Tampa Tribune as senior editor for metro in 2005 and later helped launch’s continuous news desk. He has worked as an editor and reporter in Arizona, Kentucky, Virginia, Idaho and Stuart, Fla. Email

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Scullin has worked for The Tampa Tribune since 2005, directing news coverage in Pasco County and serving as the paper’s Sunday editor. He has worked as an editor and reporter in Lakeland, Sarasota, North Carolina and California. Email

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Using cell phone data to track human movements

Posted Aug 31, 2011 by Jeff Scullin

Updated Aug 31, 2011 at 12:14 PM

NPR aired a really interesting story this morning, about how public health researchers tracked cholera victims in Haiti last year using the SIM cards in their cell phones.

“The phone owners remained anonymous, but their whereabouts showed that some 600,000 fled Port-au-Prince within three weeks of the quake,” reporter Christopher Joyce writes. “That relieved pressure on aid groups in the city, but not for long. Soon, the phone maps showed, most of those refugees returned because there was no food in the countryside.”

Tracking cell phone use was a way to see where people leaving the center of the epidemic were going, so medics would know where to go to treat people who might be infected.

Makes sense. And it worked. This is genius.

But even though the identities of the cell phone users were kept anonymous, I wonder that, in the wrong hands, the ability to track large-scale movements of people could be dangerous—even deadly. What if this weren’t Haiti but Syria—or any other regime trying to repress dissent through violent means?
A government would have a lot of leverage to pressure a telecommunications company to turn over that data.

To read more about how this was done, check out the researchers’ academic publication here.

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