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Can Phone Data Detect Real-Time Unemployment?


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Declining cellphone usage has been found to be an indicator of unemployment.

A multi-university team of researchers has found that changes in communication patterns may be seen as an indicator of employment status.

Credit: Christine Daniloff/MIT

A multi-university team of researchers demonstrated that mobile phone data can provide rapid insight into employment levels because people's communications patterns change when they are not working.

Using an automotive plant closing in Europe that resulted in about 1,100 workers unemployed in a town of about 15,000 residents as the dataset for the study, the researchers found in the months following the layoffs the total number of calls made by laid-off individuals dropped by 51 percent compared with working residents, and by 41 percent compared with all phone users. In addition, the number of calls made by a newly unemployed worker to someone in the town where they had worked fell by 5 percent, and the number of individual cellphone towers needed to transmit the calls of unemployed workers dropped by about 20 percent.

"People's social behavior diminishes, and that might be one of the ways layoffs have these negative consequences," says Massachusetts Institute of Technology Ph.D. candidate Jameson Toole.

The researchers developed a model that correlates cellphone usage patterns with aggregate changes in employment. "Using mobile phone data to project economic change would allow almost real-time tracking of the economy, and at very fine spatial granularities," says Northwestern University professor David Lazer.

From MIT News
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