A study co-authored by MIT researchers shows that mobile phone data can provide rapid insight into employment levels, precisely because people’s communications patterns change when they are not working.
Indeed, using a plant closing in Europe as the basis for their study, the researchers found that in the months following layoffs, the total number of calls made by laid-off individuals dropped by 51 percent compared with working residents, and by 41 percent compared with all phone users. The number of calls made by a newly unemployed worker to someone in the town where they had worked fell by 5 percentage points, and even the number of individual cellphone towers needed to transmit the calls of unemployed workers dropped by around 20 percent.
“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,” says Jameson Toole, a PhD candidate in MIT’s Engineering Systems Division, and a co-author of the new paper. “People’s social behavior diminishes, and that might be one of the ways layoffs have these negative consequences. It hurts the networks that might help people find the next job.”