Just as giant AETNA uses Google searches to track Flu outbreaks, development economists are starting to capitalize on cell phone usage data. In a recent paper Joshua Blumenstock analyzes cell phone use – a largely untapped source of fresh data for development economists – to track migration patterns in Rwanda:
Understanding the causes and effects of internal migration is critical to the effective design and implementation of policies that promote human development. However, a major impediment to deepening this understanding is the lack of reliable data on the movement of individuals within a country.
[…]Government censuses and household surveys, from which most migration statistics are derived, are difficult to coordinate and costly to implement, and typically do not capture the patterns of temporary and circular migration that are prevalent in developing economies. In this paper, we describe how new information and communications technologies (ICTs), and mobile phones in particular, can provide a new source of data on internal migration.
[…] Our empirical results corroborate the findings of a recent government survey that notes relatively low levels of permanent migration in Rwanda. […]Namely, we observe high levels of temporary and circular migration, and note significant heterogeneity in mobility within the Rwandan population.
More broadly, we believe that as mobile phones continue to proliferate in developing countries, and as data sets of this nature become more readily available, methods similar to those presented in this paper can be used to track and study a much wider range of phenomena of fundamental interest to those concerned with processes of human development.
Is this a new data plan for development economics? If this were to be matched with census and household survey data the potential is enormous.