Monday, June 03, 2013

Smartphones in Demographic Research

Will mobile phones transform the study of human migration? That's what researchers asked in a recent Demography article, New Approaches to Human Mobility: Using Mobile Phones for Demographic Research ($). The article describes a pilot project to test the concept of using smartphones for tracking migration. The results suggest that the study of human migration may be on the brink of radical change, and it's no surprise that a researcher from Google was one of those involved in the project.

Migration data typically come from censuses and surveys, which record where people live but not where they work or the extent of their travels on a daily basis. The mobile phone pilot project tracked volunteers for days and even weeks, examining their range of movement, the frequency with which they visited various locations, and how weekday differed from weekend traveling.

The researchers did more than plot points on a map, however. They knew the demographics of their volunteers and collected information on their subjective well-being. Every now and then, the volunteers would receive a message on their phone asking them, on a scale of 1 to 5, to rate their happiness at that moment. An intriguing finding from the (admittedly small) pilot project sample is that men's happiness declines the farther they are from home, while women's happiness is unchanged by distance. The success of this pilot project suggests that smartphones could become an important tool for demographic research in the years ahead.

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