Interesting study by Swedish researchers: Improved Response to Disasters and Outbreaks by Tracking Population Movements with Mobile Phone Network Data

Today on the Swedish national radio, this paper on “Improved Response to Disasters and Outbreaks by Tracking Population Movements with Mobile Phone Network Data” was one of the top headlines in the news. The paper targets an important topic and also shows how innovative use of digital footprints in the mobile phone networks could be used in disaster relief.

A popular version of the main ideas is presented in Fast Company.

The paper is written by:
Linus Bengtsson Xin Lu, Anna Thorson, Johan von Schreeb at the department of Public Health Sciences, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden, and Richard Garfield at Schools of Nursing and Public Health, Columbia University, United States of America.

Background: Population movements following disasters can cause important increases in morbidity and mortality. Without knowledge of the locations of affected people, relief assistance is compromised. No rapid and accurate method exists to track population movements after disasters. We used position data of subscriber identity module (SIM) cards from the largest mobile phone company in Haiti (Digicel) to estimate the magnitude and trends of population movements following the Haiti 2010 earthquake and cholera outbreak.

Methods and Findings: Geographic positions of SIM cards were determined by the location of the mobile phone tower through which each SIM card connects when calling. We followed daily positions of SIM cards 42 days before the earthquake and 158 days after. To exclude inactivated SIM cards, we included only the 1.9 million SIM cards that made at least one call both pre-earthquake and during the last month of study. In Port-au-Prince there were 3.2 persons per included SIM card. We used this ratio to extrapolate from the number of moving SIM cards to the number of moving persons. Cholera outbreak analyses covered 8 days and tracked 138,560 SIM cards. An estimated 630,000 persons (197,484 Digicel SIM cards), present in Port-au-Prince on the day of the earthquake, had left 19 days post-earthquake. Estimated net outflow of people (outflow minus inflow) corresponded to 20% of the Port-au-Prince pre-earthquake population. Geographic distribution of population movements from Port-au-Prince corresponded well with results from a large retrospective, population-based UN survey. To demonstrate feasibility of rapid estimates and to identify areas at potentially increased risk of outbreaks, we produced reports on SIM card movements from a cholera outbreak area at its immediate onset and within 12 hours of receiving data.

Conclusions: Results suggest that estimates of population movements during disasters and outbreaks can be delivered rapidly and with potentially high validity in areas with high mobile phone use.

Citation: Bengtsson L, Lu X, Thorson A, Garfield R, von Schreeb J (2011) Improved Response to Disasters and Outbreaks by Tracking Population Movements with Mobile Phone Network Data: A Post-Earthquake Geospatial Study in Haiti. PLoS Med 8(8): e1001083. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001083

Mobile information technology for Hastily Formed Networks

The term hastily formed networks (Denning, 2006) has created a lot of activities in the disaster and crisis response community in coming up with solutions that could support such networks.

Perhaps one of the most interesting initiatives is Twiddlenet or TwiddNet. Professor Guruminder Singh , Director for the Center for Mobile Devices and Communications at the Naval Post Graduate School, gave a talk (over skype) on his ongoing work. His paper presentation with the title: ”Twiddnet: Smartphones as Personal Content servers for First Responders” gave some interesting insights in how future crisis response works organized in Hastily Formed Networks could capture and distribute content using new innovative approaches. The key argument for the TwiddNet is the fact that nowadays, premium cellphones have significant processing, memory as well as communication capacity. In the next few years, low-cost cellphones will also include similar capacity. When this happens, new solutions based on personal mobile web servers will provide completely new ways in how user generated content could be shared and distributed.

The TwiddNet shows how such implementation could look like. A short search on the web shows that TwiddNet origins from a master´s thesis work done by Christopher T. Clotfelter; Jonathon E. Towle; NAVAL POSTGRADUATE SCHOOL MONTEREY CA.

In the paper by Guruminder, few insights are shared about how the end-user’s experience the use of TwiddNet. Moreover, it is not perfectly clear how the TwiddNet-applications could be distributed across a Hastily Formed Network. This issue is of outmost importance due to the fact that we cannot require all actors to have the application installed prior to the disaster event. Too many actors will then not have access or even be aware of the existence of the application.

Closfelter and Towle´s thesis can be downloaded from :

Twiddlenet: Metadata Tagging and Data Dissemination in Mobile Device Networks
Authors: Christopher T. Clotfelter; Jonathon E. Towle; NAVAL POSTGRADUATE SCHOOL MONTEREY CA

Abstract: Current mobile devices are much more than the limited modality communication tools or digital assistants they were only a few years ago; instead they offer a range of content capture capabilities, including high resolution photos, videos and sound recordings. Their communication modalities and processing power have also evolved significantly. Modern mobile devices are very capable platforms, many surpassing their desktop cousins only a few years removed. TwiddleNet is a distributed architecture of personal servers that harnesses the power of these mobile devices, enabling real time information dissemination and file sharing of multiple data types from commercial-off-the-shelf platforms. This thesis focuses on two specific issues of the TwiddleNet design; metadata tagging and data dissemination. Through a combination of automatically generated and user input metadata tag values, TwiddleNet users can locate files across participating devices. Metaphor appropriate custom tags can be added as needed to insure efficient, rich and successful file searches. Intelligent data dissemination algorithms provide context sensitive governance to the file transfer scheme. Smart dissemination reconciles device and operational states with the amount of requested data and content to send, enabling providers to meet their most pressing needs, whether that is continuing to generate content or servicing requests.

Other HFN resources:

Hastily Formed Networks Center website

Hastily Formed Networks for Complex Humanitarian Disasters After Action Report and Lessons Learned from the Naval Postgraduate School’s Response to Hurricane Katrina

Online version of selected papers from Mobile Response 2008

There is now an online version of a selection of papers from the Mobile Response Workshop 2007 organized by Fraunhofer Institute last year. Link :

My PhD-thesis will be defended on the 7th of September 2007


Abstract (draft)
This thesis contributes to our understanding of information technology use in emergency response work and how information technology could be designed to provide support in emergency response work. The work domain of operative emergency response has been studied by extensive ethnographic fieldwork at several different fire and rescue services in Sweden. Prototypes have been design and used by fire crews in field experiments in order to probe for potential future use of information technology and to study its consequences.

Using sensemaking, as an analytical lens, new aspects in emergency response work have been identified that influence the design of information technology support. The results from the extensive fieldwork and the field experiments presented in this thesis, suggest a new conceptualization of response work as patterns of practice where the collective efforts of making sense is fundamental for successful response work. The conceptualization makes visible the importance of carefully embedding the use of information technology in the situated time-critical response work.

Based on the patterns of practice, two general designs dimensions has been formed, extending our current knowledge of how information technology should be design for emergency response work. Current information technology has primarily been designed for a formal role or specific task. The results presented in this thesis suggest that the design of information technology should focus on the social interactions among the response actors involved in time-critical response work. In the collective efforts of making sense in emergency response, actors use a range of information technology artifacts, which produce a range of digital traces that say something about the ongoing work. Future information technology should be designed to make use of such traces of actions in order to improve the actors and actions visibility in the ongoing the response work.

By designing for social interactions and designing for traces of actions new improved features of information technology could be materialized that will make emergency responders better equipped for sensemaking activities in emergency response work.

Collection of papers
This thesis is a collection of five published peer-reviewed research papers where each paper contributes to the synthesized result presented in this first part of the thesis. The five papers included in this thesis are:

Landgren, J (2005). Supporting fire crew sensemaking enroute to incidents. International Journal of Emergency Management. Vol2, No3. Inderscience Enterprises Ltd.
An earlier version of this paper was published in: Landgren, J (2004). Fire Crew Enroute Sensemaking, In the proceedings of International Workshop on Information systems for Crisis response and management, Brussels, Belgium. (Awarded as best PhD-student paper)

Landgren, J (2005). Shared use of information technology in emergency response work. In the proceedings of Second International Conference on Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management (ISCRAM) 18-20th April. Brussels, Belgium

Landgren, J. (2006). Making Action Visible in Time-Critical Work. In the proceedings of the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI2006), Montréal, Québec, Canada, ACM Press. (Nominated for best paper)

Landgren, J and Nulden, U (2007) A study of emergency response work: Patterns of mobile Phone Interaction. In the proceedings of the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI2007), San Jose, US.

Landgren, J (2007) Investigating The Tension Between Information Technology Use and Emergency Response Work. In the proceedings of the European Conference on Information Systems (ECIS2007), St Gallen, Switzerland.

Jonas Landgren, 2007-06-27

Full-paper presentation at CHI2007

On the 3rd of May I will present the paper “A study of Emergency Response Work: Patterns of Mobile Phone Interaction” on the Distributed Cognition track at the CHI2007 conference in San Jose, US. This paper is co-authored with Urban Nulden. This is my second presentation of a research paper at CHI and I am looking forward to attend the various tracks. This paper presents findings from a study of emergency response work at two chemical incidents and how mobile phone interactions in such work could provide new ways of distributing and sharing information.

Full paper accepted for CHI2007, San Jose

Today, I received good news from Bo Begole and Stephen Payne, CHI 2007 Papers Chairs. My paper, The role of mobile phones in time-critical organizing, co-authored with Prof Urban Nulden was formally accepted for the CHI 2007 conference a track named Distributed Coordination. Our paper is an ethnography of emergency response work in two large-scale chemical accidents. We describe and analyze the response work using a sensemaking perspective. The results outline patterns of mobile phone interaction among the key emergency response actors. What is CHI? “CHI is the premiere conference in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI)”
Quote from
The paper will be available via ACM and the ACM Portal

Full-paper presentation at CHI2006

Today I presented my paper “Making Action Visible in Time-Critical Work” at the CHI2006 conference in Montreal, Canada. This paper was also nominated for the best paper award. It is my first time at CHI and I am deeply impressed by the variety of tracks and the quality of the research. Have a look at the conference papers at My paper can be downloaded by using this link via ACM.

Paper Publication: Supporting fire crew sensemaking enroute to incidents

My paper on fire crew sensemaking has been published in International Journal of Emergency Management.

Abstract: Reconstruction of major emergencies and crises as well as observations of large-scale emergency exercises are common approaches for studying and understanding various actors’ work practice in emergency response. Studies of small-scale emergencies using an ethnographic approach are less common. This paper presents data from a single small-scale emergency as part of an extensive ethnographical field study. A detailed analysis of sensemaking in a fire crew en route a small-scale emergency is outlined. The theory of sensemaking is applied as an analytical lens, aiming to explain the communication between the command centre operator and the fire crew in terms of sensemaking. Further, implications for the design of information technology use for fire crew enroute sensemaking will be presented as well as brief reflections of the consequences of such design.

Access the full-paper from this location.