Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

No Place to Hide? the Ethics and Analytics of Tracking Mobility Using Mobile Phone Data

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

No Place to Hide? the Ethics and Analytics of Tracking Mobility Using Mobile Phone Data

Article excerpt


This paper examines the ethical and methodological problems with tracking human mobility using data from mobile phones, focusing on research involving low- and middle-income countries. Such datasets are becoming accessible to an increasingly broad community of researchers and data scientists, with a variety of analytical and policy uses proposed. This paper provides an overview of the state of the art in this area of research, then sets out a new analytical framework for such data sources that focuses on three pressing issues: first, interpretation and disciplinary bias; second, the potential risks to data subjects in low- and middle-income countries and possible ethical responses; and third, the likelihood of 'function creep' from benign to less benign uses. Using the case study of a data science challenge involving West African mobile phone data, I argue that human mobility is becoming legible in new, more detailed ways, and that this carries with it the dual risk of rendering certain groups invisible and of misinterpreting what is visible. Thus, this emerging ability to track movement in real time offers both the possibility of improved responses to conflict and forced migration, but also unprecedented power to surveil and control unwanted population movement.


Data for development, Africa, big data, mobile phones, mobility, privacy


Reliable data on human mobility are scarce, and especially so in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). (1) Mobility data constitute one dimension of the problem of missing statistics outlined by Jerven (2013), where the infrastructure and resources to gather reliable economic and population information in LMICs are often severely limited. A 'datafication' turn (2) is taking place in academic and policy research, enabled by born-digital datasets of unprecedented size (3) ('big data') from new digital technologies. Datafication in LMICs is driven at least partly by the rise in mobile phone and internet use (ITU, 2013) worldwide. 'Big' digital data is starting to present an answer to the scarcity of up-to-date, granular information sources about LMICs (Taylor and Schroeder, 2014).

The datafication turn is worth evaluating because it has profound implications for what Scott (1998) has termed the 'legibility' of the subjects of development. Scott's term refers to the ways in which high-modernist, technocratic means are used to shape populations into more governable form. I will argue that the current surge in development research using mobile phone data highlights the gap between legibility and understanding. Separating out often-conflated types of new digital data, this paper focuses on what Hildebrandt (2012) has termed 'observed data' collected by mobile network operators, distinguishing this from volunteered geographical information which raises different issues regarding user awareness and consent. One chief feature of big data is that it is primarily gathered and processed by corporations: for example, Crampton et al. (2014) note that 'three quarters of the imagery utilized by the [US] National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) derives from nongovernment or commercial sources'. This suggests that conclusions based on big data primarily represent the perspectives and aims of those with the influence and resources to channel and access it.

There are reasons to be particularly wary of what Pentland (2011) has termed 'the god's eye view' provided by big data when it comes to mobile data about lower income countries. Massey (1993) has argued that who one is determines how one may move, and that the new technologies of mobility do not benefit everyone equally. If we apply her logic to mobility as reconstructed via mobile phone traces, we see that they may expose some people and hide others, and that a discourse about the universality of these signals masks their unevenness and complications. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.