Scientists know when you're unemployed... just from your phone calls

Lynsey Barber
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What does your phone know about you? More than you think

As if you didn't already feel like you're phone knows more about you than, well, you, scientists can now use it to tell whether you have a job or not.

Researchers from MIT have managed to identify people's employment levels simply through analysing how they use their mobile phone.

It may sound creepy, but it could in fact provide an early indicator of economic trends in real-time.

“Individuals who we believe to have been laid off display fewer phone calls incoming, contact fewer people each month, and the people they are contacting are different," said Jameson Toole, a PhD candidate in MIT’s Engineering Systems Division, and a co-author of the research paper, published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

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Anonymised phone data from 1,000 European workers who had lost their job at a factory was used to build an algorithm which analysed patterns of phone usage. This could then predict the probability that a person had become unemployed.

The researchers believe mobile usage is closely aligned with standard unemployment measures, and it could allow them to make projections for unemployment two to eight weeks faster than current measures.

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“Using mobile phone data to project economic change would allow almost real-time tracking of the economy, and at very fine spatial granularities… both of which are impossible given current methods of collecting economic statistics,” said David Lazer, a professor at Northeastern University and a co-author of the paper.

While the data is unlikely to replace official figures, it could help economists get the inside track.

“These methods should not be viewed as substitutes for current methods of collecting data about the economy as much as very powerful complements,” he added.

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