Books written by Ray Sullivan

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Leaving Virtual Breadcrumbs

IBM have carried out a major study of mobile phone traffic in Abidjan, the largest city on the Ivory Coast.  They analysed over 2.5 billion mobile calls from the five million mobile phone users on the Ivory Coast as part of the study.  They didn't have access to consistent GPS information but were able to identify the closest phone mast to each call as it was made and from that they drew a population map of the city that allowed them to make a prediction about traffic routes that the city planners hadn't identified.

It sounds crazy to think that mobile phones can tell us more than census returns or even good old fashioned observation of where the houses are built but the obvious weakness in those metrics is that it's people, not houses, that travel on buses.  And people are where they need to be, when they need to be.  Which may be at work, at play or at home.  And generally with their mobile phones.

What IBM found was that the city needed two more bus routes laying on and that the net result of that would be a reduction of travel times of ten percent.  Or put it another way, a measurable efficiency saving.

It's not the creation of two new bus routes that most of us will never see, let alone enjoy, that's really significant here, though, it's the methods developed to analyse such large amounts of data to make that analysis.  It's a mobile world, and not just in the first world.  I don't know a great deal about the Ivory Coast, but a cursory glance at the main economic and demographic data would suggest it is a relatively stable region of western Africa and that the adult population numbers about ten million.  Or to put it another way, there's about one mobile phone per household, similar to the situation in the UK about 15, maybe 20 years ago.  The IBM report also suggests that public transport is also still very much prevalent.

Now I guess one of the questions that should be asked is whether the commuters who used the bus system knew that they needed an additional two bus routes, and if they did, had they asked  for them.  Because that's probably a simpler, low tech solution to this kind of problem.  It reminds me of my early days in the RAF where I learned that new bases were established without formal paths between buildings - instead they grassed all the potential pathways and waited to see where the natural paths were formed.  Any two airmen may have had opposing views on where the paths should go, but stuff a thousand random guys and gals on a base and avoid telling them where to walk and they'll work out the most efficient routes without needing a scale map.

But underneath this is the prospect that we are all leaving bread crumbs behind us wherever we go.  If it's public transport we need to manage, look at the crumbs.  If we have half empty buses but full routes into town, maybe our prices or timings are wrong - as a group, we consumers will gravitate to the most appropriate deal going and might, just, relinquish the convenience of our cars if the benefits outweigh the negatives.

If a lot of people are hanging around a bus stop consistently between certain times it suggests that they could change the timings, too.  How about capturing those people who are hanging around town - maybe waiting for those pesky buses?  Perhaps local bars and cafes could use that information to change their opening hours or to make intelligent offers to draw punters in.

Maybe towns and cities could look at  where people wander, to decide where they need to put information, to direct them to where they will spend money, maybe to direct them from less salubrious parts of town to protect them?

The point is, wherever you go with your mobile phone, you leave breadcrumbs.  When we all access the same virtual loaf, we leave real data.  That data is worth more than a loaf of bread, it's a bakery and the product from its ovens is knowledge.


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