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Roaming phones show we are creatures of habit

A new application of the mobile phone has confirmed that we are creatures of habit in our daily journeys and paved the way to better understand basic laws of human motion.

A team of researchers in the USA used mobile phones to accurately monitor people’s day-to-day movements and verified that we tend to make regular journeys to the same few locations with occasional longer trips.

The study, reported in this week’s Nature, offers a new way for scientists to more accurately understand the behavior of individuals. The ability to map large-scale human movements has broad applications in areas such as urban planning, traffic forecasting and disease monitoring.

Led by Albert-László Barabási from Northeastern University in Boston, the researchers tracked the movements of 100,000 people over a six-month period by logging the locations of the transmitter towers that handled each of their mobile phone calls or text messages. To avoid the effect of an irregular call pattern, the researchers also recorded the locations of a second group of 206 mobile phone users every two hours for an entire week.

Mobile phones carried by the same individual during his/her daily routine offer a useful proxy to capture individual human trajectories. This meant that as well as being able to monitor movement, the researchers could also monitor lack of movement: a big step up in this type of monitoring. Previous attempts to map human movements were through a coarse proxy such as tracking banknotes.

The patterns revealed in the new study differ slightly from the classic ‘Lévy flight’ patterns displayed by many foraging animals, probably because most humans are not completely free to roam but instead have to turn up to work every day.

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