Phone-tracking data could be used to gather census statistics, ONS says

Written by Sam Trendall on 8 November 2017 in News

Office for National Statistics continues research to find ways of making the 2021 census the last to use traditional data-gathering methods

In addition to traditional pen-and-paper methods, the 2011 census was the first to offer the option of online completion  Credit: PA

Smartphone tracking information could be used to gather data for the decennial UK census, research from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has concluded.

The ONS has published research outputs comparing data on people’s movements gathered by mobile network operator Vodafone with its own information on citizens’ journeys to work from the 2011 census. The Vodafone data contained details of customers’ movements within and between three London boroughs: Southwark; Lambeth; and Croydon.

The ONS mapped this information onto an adjusted version of its own travel-to-work statistics for the same boroughs from the 2011 census. The aim was to see if there was enough correlation between the two to consider using phone-tracking data as an alternative means of gathering commuting statistics for future censuses. 

The resultant research outputs – which the ONS stressed do not represent “official statistics” – were published as part of the organisation’s Administrative Data Census Project. The aim of the project is to identify potential ways of using existing “administrative data” to achieve the government’s stated ambition of making the 2021 census the last to be conducted using traditional citizen surveys. 

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“This research has shown, for local authority areas, mobile phone data (MPD) flows and 2011 census travel-to-work data have good correlation for longer-distance commuter flows, over a magnitude of around 100 commuters,” the ONS said. “Future enhancement of the method to infer a commuter might be to remove the constraint of implied standard working hours to try and include commuters with non-standard work patterns, such as night- or shift-workers, weekend workers, and workers with varying hours of work.”

But using mobile operator data to assess the volume of workers travelling to and from work within the boundaries of one borough resulted in the number of commuters being “greatly overestimated”, the ONS said.

“As there is a methodological limitation of MPD in detecting homeworkers or commuters who travel very short distances, this suggests many people, for more local areas, are being incorrectly identified as being workers,” the ONS added. 

“For example, students and people who visit nearby shopping areas twice a week might be identified as being a worker in MPD. Future enhancement of the MPD algorithms might be able to separate students from workers by looking at movement behaviour across a longer period, and considering the different movements during term times against school holiday times.”


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Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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