In “UW Researchers Estimate Poverty and Wealth from Cell Phone metadata” by Peter Kelley (source), the author cites a recent study from the Information School and Computer Science and Engineering Department.
Joshua Blumenstock, the lead author who is an adjunct, states:
What we show in this paper, and I think fairly clearly, is that phone data can be used to estimate wealth and poverty…
For those thousand people, we know roughly whether they’re rich or poor. That’s the ground truth that anchors the data to reality
They examine habits of cell phone users to determine the divide between the rich and the poor by looking at how people pay for time and when the calls are made throughout the day.
What is interesting to note is how cell phones are used between friends:
[They examine] The degree to which a person is more likely to make than receive phone calls. Since in Rwanda the caller pays for the call, poorer people tend to receive more calls than they make.
This also reflects a phenomenon called “flashing,” where a poorer person calls a wealthier friend and quickly hangs up, thus sending the signal that they should call back.
The researchers conclude this type of data could be used in policy decisions and may be an alternative to expensive census reports.
The questions were designed to learn where those individuals fell on the socioeconomic ladder and what the “signature” of wealth is in the metadata — that is, what cell phone habits are particular to those who are relatively wealthy.
“For those thousand people, we know roughly whether they’re rich or poor. That’s the ground truth that anchors the data to reality,” Blumenstock said.
Broader applications for this type of research could be to examine student use of cell phones–for those who lack consistent Internet access–for completing or not completing online classes.