Vermont professor tracks pandemic movement with cellphone data

We know that in the last two years, people from out of state have moved to Vermont, but figuring out how many and from where can be tough.
Published: Feb. 8, 2022 at 8:45 AM EST
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MIDDLEBURY, Vt. (WCAX) - We know that in the last two years, people from out of state have moved to Vermont, but figuring out how many and from where can be tough.

Now, one Middlebury College professor is using cellphone data to track movement.

“What kinds of people and what kinds of places receive this flow of people leaving the city for the countryside,” said Peter Nelson, a professor of geography at Middlebury College.

Whether it be flooding, fires or just getting away from the global pandemic, anecdotally, we hear of folks flocking to Vermont.

Nelson is looking to quantify the trends we hear about nationally.

“We don’t have real-time data about where people live,” said Nelson.

Nelson says the census is valuable, as is the postal service, but he was looking for more real-time and more specific information.

“I saw some articles in the New York Times about cellphone data,” said Nelson. “We all have these great geolocators on us that we carry around voluntarily with us at all times.”

We agree to terms and conditions on our cellphones when we download apps that use location data. That data can be collected and sold by firms to businesses looking to know more about who is where and when.

Nelson, though, is more interested in just understanding where people are moving.

“Let’s look at the number of mobile devices that are recorded as being at home in these tracks or counties over time,” said Nelson.

No, he can’t track one specific phone, though that data is available for upward of $100,000.

His research is month by month, following the number of devices in certain areas and where they are moving to.

“Change in the number of devices is a proxy for change in the number of people,” said Nelson.

So far, the data Nelson is following paints a clearer picture of pandemic movement.

Subtle changes in percentages of populations can account for a lot of people on the move.

“So far, the results are showing what some of these stories suggest,” said Nelson.

It’s not perfect, Nelson doesn’t have his hands on the specific device data. But even as it stands, Nelson says the research is worth the time.

“If we can identify the profile of the type of place that sees this influx in population, you can better anticipate when the next event occurs which are the type of places that will see the most demographic impact,” said Nelson.

The research is still ongoing but this sort of data could be useful to an array of people from the state for economic growth purposes or to the USDA for food system services. Both of which could provide Nelson with the $100,000 to get the more specific cellphone data, something he is continuing to think about.

Related Story:

Climate migrants flock to Vermont, but is the state ready?

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