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Cellphones Government Science

Taking the Census, With Cellphones 57

sciencehabit writes: If you want to figure out how many people live in a particular part of your country, you could spend years conducting home visits and mailing out questionnaires. But a new study describes a quicker way. Scientists have figured out how to map populations using cellphone records — an approach that doesn't just reveal who lives where, but also where they go every day. The researchers also compared their results to population density data gathered through remote sensing technologies, a widely-used method that relies on satellite imaging to gather detailed information on population settlement patterns and estimate population counts. They found that the two methods are comparable in accuracy when checked against actual survey-based census data, but estimates from mobile phone data can provide more timely information, down to the hours.
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Taking the Census, With Cellphones

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  • 1984 (Score:5, Funny)

    by Jstlook ( 1193309 ) on Tuesday October 28, 2014 @05:26AM (#48249059)
    Yay. Thank goodness we've finally gotten there. Can we please find a new book to emulate? Pretty please?

    How about ... hell, how about a phone book? Nice quiet read .. no end of the world catastrophies to worry about, just some lousy advertising.
    • by SeaFox ( 739806 )

      How about ... hell, how about a phone book? Nice quiet read .. no end of the world catastrophies to worry about, just some lousy advertising.

      A book that tracks everyone's location -- nice choice.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 28, 2014 @05:40AM (#48249125)

    Head counts are only a small fraction of the information that is gathered in a typical census (I've worked on a number around the world). Although important to determine population shifts & regional distributions of people, the more detailed demographics are what statisticians will be going through for some time after. A full census will provide details on household & family make up, religion & minority groups, immigration. I think the posted article has a long way to go to reach a full solution.

    • I agree, but I think they may be taking this into account. For one, having a detailed mapping of somewhat technically engaged populace gives them just a little more information in regards to determining what segments of the population to randomly select for enhanced census. I know they are supposed to try to hit everyone but with just the right emphasis on how hard to try in certain areas, the results can be skewed enough to matter.

      • by bws111 ( 1216812 )

        Huh? Why do you want 'just a little more information' to 'randomly select' something? That makes no sense at all.

        • If that has to be explained to you, then your are likely one of the demographics they are interested in for "random selection"

      • I agree, but I think they may be taking this into account. For one, having a detailed mapping of somewhat technically engaged populace gives them just a little more information in regards to determining what segments of the population to randomly select for enhanced census. I know they are supposed to try to hit everyone but with just the right emphasis on how hard to try in certain areas, the results can be skewed enough to matter.

        Well, more accurately it can tell them when they've achieved a statistically significant portion of the region in order to deem the census valid without having to get 100% and know they have a statistically relevant/reliable number, making it easier to account for the people not being home, etc.

        Of course, they'll also "know" your home under the assumption you didn't forget your cellular device(s) at "home" that day.

    • Yea, they really shouldn't call it a census; the article refers to it as "population density". But it does provide an interesting view of where people are during the day or on certain days (workdays, holidays, weekends, etc), something a regular census can't provide.
      • As one of the co-authors on this paper I appreciate that you actually took the time to understand that we aren't trying to actually represent this as equivalent to a census. But rather we can estimate population density at spatial scales and across shorter temporal scales than one would normally be able to measure.

        This represents a significant step forward as input data into a variety of disease transmission, demographic, transportation and other research areas and we are very excited about it. For more in

  • The author misses the mark by a mile. This doesn't even qualify as a poll, barely an opinion. Weak.
    • agreed. According to the article, "Records in France came from 17 million users, about 30% of the population, and contained only the day of the call and the phone tower locations, due to differences in the carrier’s policy."

      They had to use an empirical model to get estimates that were kind of close to the actual population density.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 28, 2014 @06:00AM (#48249183)

    The primary purpose of a census is to determine apportionment to a legislature, that is, how many people require representation in a given area. Voters tend to be the elderly who have plenty of time on their hands and an inclination to follow politics. Elderly voters are much less likely to own those dang new-fangled cell-phones than trendy teenage non-voters. By conducting a census by counting cellphones, you end up ignoring politically active voters and counting politically oblivious non-voters.

    • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Tuesday October 28, 2014 @08:00AM (#48249563)

      The primary purpose of a census is to determine apportionment to a legislature

      Yes, and Article 1, Section 2, of the United States Constitution requires an actual enumeration. Any sort of statistical approximation is not legal. A count based on cellphones would skew toward young urban people (Democrats), and away from old rural people (Republicans). There is no way that would be passively accepted, and the courts have smacked down other attempts to "reform" the census.

    • Voters tend to be the elderly who have plenty of time on their hands and an inclination to follow politics. Elderly voters are much less likely to own those dang new-fangled cell-phones than trendy teenage non-voters. By conducting a census by counting cellphones, you end up ignoring politically active voters and counting politically oblivious non-voters.

      Alas for your theory, but we use the census to count people who CAN vote, not people who DO vote. Yes, those politically oblvious non-voters still get rep

      • What's your point? The old way, which counts the people who "do vote" still includes the one's who "can vote."

      • How do you distinguish between an illegal alien's cell phone usage (living there but not to be included in the census) and a legal resident of the state?
  • by Anonymous Coward

    ignores everybody without cell phones.

    • They simply think you simply don't exist without a cellphone.
      And if you don't exist, you can be ignored in the census.
      Sorry, I have a call... later!
    • Suppose there are about a million people in a city. You could try to count each of those million people one by one and you'd miss a few, perhaps 5%.
      Alternatively, you could poll 200 people in each of 20 neighborhoods within the city, a total of 4,000 people, to find out that 61% of the people have active cell phones. In other words, for every 61 cell phones, there are 100 people. Then ask the carriers how many cell phones there are and multiply. You'll still be off by 5%, and you've had to talk to 4,000

      • by tomhath ( 637240 )

        You'll still be off by 5%, and you've had to talk to 4,000 people instead of a million people.

        Plus with a statistical approximation you can tweak the estimate as needed to give a different population when you want to gerrymander a congressional district (e.g. allowing for commuters to avoid an over count in cities).

    • Simple. Redefine "human" to mean entity that owns AND USES a cell phone.
  • by dcw3 ( 649211 )

    They could have just asked NSA.

  • by aglider ( 2435074 ) on Tuesday October 28, 2014 @07:30AM (#48249429) Homepage

    Scientists have figured out how to map populations using cellphone records.

    This is a fast forward advancement in technology! Wooow!

  • Some states hold that the constitution only authorizes the government to count the people. Which means you can not estimate the population. You can not apply corrections to the counted number based on statistics. Most of the under counted populations are undocumented migratory workers and minorities. So such corrections go towards the Democrats. So most Republicans advance that argument. But using cell phones would bias the sample towards slightly more affluent populations and might skew towards Republicans
    • Normally I would be able to find equally absurd mutually exclusive contradictory view points held by Democrats to "balance" the posting and burnish my credentials as a "neutral" guy. But it is getting increasingly difficult. And I no longer care to be the "neutral" guy. And I have karma to burn.
      Allow me to save you the trouble, you chose guns, like your absurd nuclear tipped bazooka, yet I bet you've never noticed or asked yourself why there aren't rifles sold in greater than 0.50 caliber? Hint, 1968 firea
      • Republicans do more boot stomping and do it much harder. Right now the Republicans pose a much bigger threat to America. They have completely sold out to the rich. Dems too, but Republicans have become more brazen and blatant about being shills for the rich. They whip up terror, anger and hatred among the only reliable base they have left, older, Christian, white folks.

        When JFK cut capital gains taxes, corporate America invested the gains back in America. When Reagan cut taxes the rich betrayed us and inve

        • Right now the Republicans pose a much bigger threat to America.

          If you think you're helping the country, then you'd be wrong. You're part of the problem. Partisanship is a cancer in any democratic government.

          • Right now the Republicans pose a much bigger threat to America.

            If you think you're helping the country, then you'd be wrong. You're part of the problem. Partisanship is a cancer in any democratic government.

            You are confusing the disease with the cure. Republican partisanship is the cancer. Democratic partisanship is the chemotherapy. America will recover from the second, not from the first.

      • by spitzak ( 4019 )

        He was talking about the CENSUS, not press freedom, you idiot.

        And I think there were more advanced weapons than flintlocks in 1968.

    • Not to mention you miss them if they don't make a call. Not to mention you count them if they are tourists visiting for a weekend. This method would massively overestimate the population in tourist areas and business disctricts where nobody lives but lots of people work. Census counts where people reside.

      And the article says the estimate got 30% of the population and they had to make a huge correction (multiplying by about 3.3!) to get close to France's actual population.

      But that's OK. Let's just chip e

  • So, they're saying that the obvious under-reporting (for low-income households, the homeless, and for babies/young children/seniors) is balanced by the obvious over-reporting (people with both a work and a home phone, and people who's line of work involves several "burner" phones) ?

    Constitutionally - this is not a fair accounting method, since there is an income requirement to be counted.

  • Why can't we on a global basis figure out how to send "researchers" who do this shit to jail?

  • Since the census was originally intended to provide for the number of Representatives to Congress, and that has since been capped at 435 total, what the hell is even the point anymore other than collecting metrics.
    • Back to US Gov 101 for you. The census determines how many each state gets of the 435 representatives. If California loses a bunch of people and Wyoming suddenly get's a bunch more people. California loses representatives and Wyoming gains some.

      • by Aryden ( 1872756 )
        Not with the way in which Congress has rigged the law in regards to the count of reps from each state. The only real way it would change is if half of CA left for Wyoming. Even then, the math they use would STILL keep them where they are and they would gerrymander the districts to reflect the new population lines.
        • Gerrymandering is one of those things that the fact that it is legal is just jaw-dropping. I can see school children in future history classes learning about it and shaking their heads in awe and the blatant audacity of some of these districts.

        • What are you talking about?!?!

          Gerrymandering is something completely separate from how many representatives a state gets in the House. Gerrymandering would in no way affect the number of representatives that California gets. Gerrymandering is what happens AFTER the census and AFTER it's determined how many representatives a state gets.

          So in the made up crazy example I gave of California losing a bunch of it's population and Wyoming suddenly getting a bunch. California would for example go from 53 represent

          • by Aryden ( 1872756 )
            Sorry, keep them where they are in terms of politically assigned districting. i.e transfer 19 reps to Wyoming, then gerrymander them back to being in the same "transplanted" districts. In other words, moving them from CA to WY would have no real effect as the party in power would redraw the lines to suit their desires.
            • You are making no sense. The point of rebalancing representatives in the House is so that the states are properly represented. If Michigan has 50% of the country's population, they're going to have 50% of the representatives (well 50% of 385 since each state get's 1 rep).

              • by Aryden ( 1872756 )
                Let's say out of 435 Reps, you have 215 Dems, and 220 Republican. Then there is this shift you speak of. The party in power would then make sure to gerrymander the "new" districts so that it STAYS that way rather than a massive intermixing of voters. So, nothing would really change other than where the rep came from.
                • That is one giant non-sequitor. The party in power in each STATE chooses the district lines. California is majority Democrat, Wyoming is majority Republican. In the hypothetical we have Wyoming would probably get more Republican representatives, and California would lose Democratic representatives. So instead of 215 Dem to 220 Rep. You'd, get 196 Dem, and 239 Rep. But that's in a perfect world for the party doing the gerrymandering. If the people that left California were all Democrat leaning people, and th

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