The impact of GIS on understanding human movement

by | Jul 9, 2022

The rise of smartphones and tracking data has made way for opportunities to understand our world better. According to Statista, the number of mobile phones in the world was 14 billion as of 2020 and is predicted to go up to 18.2 billion in 2025. The world population prediction for 2025 is to be around 8.2 billion which means there will be around 10 billion more phones in the world than people.

Mobile phone usage is ever increasing with the average person spending between at least 2 to 3 hours a day on their phone for making calls, sending messages and emails, reading content, social media, taking photos and using apps. Mobile phones are now integral to our way of living.

The combination of geographic information systems (GIS) and anonymous phone data have enabled experts to create visual interpretations of what this data means in relation to human movements. Through the digital footprints that we leave, anonymous data is tracked such as calls or texts that can leave timestamps via applications. Although, there is much debate around the manipulation of mobile data for commercial profiteering, anonymous geographical data has many benefits such as security, health, city development and public accessibility.

So, what are the movements of around 16 billion mobile phones around the world today, telling us about how humans move from place to place?

Research on human movement

When it comes to understanding urbanisation and how humans are behaving in cities, mobile phone data has proven to be invaluable and a treasured resource. Many academic reports have highlighted that the rise of mobile apps and their location data to help to make more informed, data-driven decisions that can benefit local communities and smart city developments.

Studies on human mobility have helped us to understand the spatial temporal (e.g. mapping of transportation of goods/services via locations over time) and how to identify different patterns in data.

GIS tools have helped massively during this analytical process to make it easier to visualise, track and contextualize location data with that can help highlight trends or patterns within large data sets. These visual maps can also be accumulated to make comparisons over time. This is important for assessing long-term trends and making predictions based on past data or patterns. For instance, this can be helpful for different scenarios such as seeing impact of tourists in national parks, the movement of shoppers in CBDs or the impact of crime rates in certain areas.

These maps can also be used to understand the big impact of short-term changes such as natural disasters (e.g., epidemic, earthquakes and storms) and to visualise the behaviour of humans via regions. During the COVID-19 pandemic, mobility research studies were conducted with GIS with the purpose of making conclusions on how certain measures such as face masks, social distancing or regional lockdowns would impact the containment of the virus.

Mapping the future of urbanisation

Larger populations in cities and towns are resulting in more development, more risks and more local services being required such as roads, infrastructure, health and community facilities.

Planning for these challenges is vital and mapping human movement can greatly benefit cities by providing insight into service provision in growing urban areas. Access to services has the rise of concepts such as the “15-minute city” . This was devised by Carlos Moreno, a city planner, who is at the forefront of understanding our cities, how people move around them, and what requirements or facilities are needed to help people in these locations. So much so, that everything that a person could require would only be within a 15-minute walk or cycle away. The project is to ensure services or products are more accessible to us as communities. Real-time maps and GIS have been used for many years to help with this and to understand how the busiest transportation hotspots, how products or services are utilised within cities and how tourism can also impact a city.

The combination of data collected through phone applications and the advancements of GIS to visually comprehend this data is making the outcomes incredibly powerful. Not only will it allow organisations to invest in more opportunities but also enable them to consider any risks, such as the impacts of humans on natural resource and to plan more effectively.

Over the past 30 years we have worked with all kinds of organisations to satisfy their GIS needs.  In the last decade in particular we have witnessed the growing trend of utilising mobile phone data to better understand the needs of human mobility.  We would be keen to share our experience with you and demonstrate the power of spatial data that we could bring to your organisation or department.  Contact us today.