What mobile phone data can reveal about you

Image: Rwandans with phones
The mobile phone penetration rate in Rwanda is more than 70 percent. (Credit: Joshua Blumenstock)

Researchers have analyzed data about mobile phone use in Rwanda to figure out how wealthy a phone’s user is – and they say they might be able to do the same kind of analysis for any other country.

The study, published today in the journal Science, applies big-data models to look at much more than income. The Rwandan data, for example, could be massaged to predict which phone users owned a motorcycle or a TV.

Joshua Blumenstock, the study’s lead author and an information scientist at the University of Washington, is now working on a follow-up project to see how easily the computer models can be applied to places beyond Rwanda.

“In every country, we hypothesize that there’s a relationship between how people use their phone and how wealthy they are,” he said in a Science podcast. “The exact nature of that relationship is going to change from one country to another, and it might even change from one year to the next within a country. But fundamentally, you’d think that there are these relationships that exist.”

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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