Flooding through the lens of mobile phone activity

November 24, 2014 by David Pastor-Escuredo, Alfredo Morales-Guzmán, Yolanda Torres-Fernández, Jean-Martin Bauer, Amit Wadhwa, Carlos Castro-Correa, Liudmyla Romanoff, Jong Gun Lee, Alex Rutherford, Vanessa Frias-Martinez, Nuria Oliver, Enrique Frias-Martinez, Miguel Luengo-Oroz

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Natural disasters affect hundreds of millions of people worldwide every year. Emergency response efforts depend upon the availability of timely information, such as information concerning the movements of affected populations. The analysis of aggregated and anonymized Call Detail Records (CDR) captured from the mobile phone infrastructure provides new possibilities to characterize human behavior during critical events. In this work, we investigate the viability of using CDR data combined with other sources of information to characterize the floods that occurred in Tabasco, Mexico in 2009. An impact map has been reconstructed using Landsat-7 images to identify the floods. Within this frame, the underlying communication activity signals in the CDR data have been analyzed and compared against rainfall levels extracted from data of the NASA-TRMM project. The variations in the number of active phones connected to each cell tower reveal abnormal activity patterns in the most affected locations during and after the floods that could be used as signatures of the floods - both in terms of infrastructure impact assessment and population information awareness. The representativeness of the analysis has been assessed using census data and civil protection records. While a more extensive validation is required, these early results suggest high potential in using cell tower activity information to improve early warning and emergency management mechanisms.