How big data can visualize human activity across the world


The last few years have seen a tremendous rise in the amount, and quality, of data available to understand our behaviors and habits.

We’ve seen, for instance, attempts to understand employment patterns, nightlife habits and travel movements by using the data generated from our mobile phones.

As with any complex data set, recording this information is one part of the equation, but making it accessible to lay people is arguably a bigger challenge.  The ability to therefore represent this rich data in accessible ways is crucial to successful utilization of mobile data.

Making sense of big data

One project to try and do that has come from MIT’s SENSEable City Laboratory, who have produced a tool called ManyCities to help visualize the data generated by our phones.

The tool organizes and presents the data in an easy to use way that allows trends to quickly emerge.

For instance, the team have collated mobile data from LA, New York, Hong Kong and London over a 9 month period.  This data includes the number of text messages sent, calls placed and data downloaded.  The aim is to provide insight into typical usage patterns within neighborhoods.

The data is then presented in three ways:

  1. showing daily/weekly fluctuations in usage, which could show the impact of holidays or major events, for instance
  2. location targeting, so users can observe patterns in particular neighborhoods.  You can compare text message usage in London and Hong Kong, for instance, or between residential and commercial parts of town
  3. the data also shows the volume of data produced, and the most active parts of a city

The tool is freely available via the ManyCities website, and the team have also documented their approach in a recently published study.

It’s a lot of fun to play around with, and you could certainly see how it could be used to provide a real-time analytics capability, allowing managers the ability to accurately plan for major events or emergencies.


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