How the EU Can Unlock the Private Sector’s Human-Mobility Data for Social Good

Hodan Omaar March 28, 2022
March 28, 2022
Private firms face a number of challenges that limit their willingness and ability to share mobility data. The government’s role should be to coordinate the behavior of individuals, companies, and researchers toward social good.

Many businesses routinely collect data about the location of consumers, such as where they are when they make a purchase or use a mobile app. Aggregating this information reveals useful insights about human mobility and social interaction. Researchers, governments, and others can use this mobility data, while respecting user privacy, to study and address many pressing societal challenges, such as disease spread, urban functioning, forced migration, climate change, and disaster response. To support these types of applications, EU policymakers should encourage businesses to share mobility data by implementing policies that provide firms with regulatory clarity, financial incentives, and technical resources to give out this type of data.

Mobility data describes people's movements from one location to another at certain points in time. Population censuses and travel history surveys have historically served as sources of mobility data for researchers exploring population movements. But censuses and surveys are costly to implement, limited in scope and granularity, and ineffective in situations where timely information is needed, such as during conflicts or epidemics. So instead, researchers have increasingly turned toward location data from call records and mobile apps that provide location-based services to fill in the gaps of human mobility patterns at high spatial resolutions, spanning wide temporal periods, and across international borders.

Consider the use of mobility data to track the movement of people from Ukraine after Russia invaded the country in February, which represents the fastest and largest displacement of people in Europe since World War II. Crisis Ready, a collaboration between Harvard University and nonprofit humanitarian organization Direct Relief, has been using mobility data from Meta’s (formerly Facebook’s) Data for Good program to show where Ukrainian refugees are moving from and to in close to real time, enabling a range of policymakers and response agencies to prioritize the allocation of limited resources to the locations where they are most needed.

Unfortunately, access to novel mobility data is difficult for researchers to obtain because it typically rests in the hands of private firms that face significant legal, financial, and practical challenges to sharing this data.

To address privacy concerns, firms can use tools that limit the risk that an individual’s records are uniquely identified in or inferred from a dataset. However, the more specific and less general de-identified mobility data is, the more useful it may be to researchers, which means firms must strike a fine balance in de-identification between the utility of the data and the risk of re-identification. Proper de-identification tools are often costly, which smaller firms may see as a prohibitive cost to data sharing. Those that do share proprietary mobility data may reduce their own competitiveness if other companies use their data to inform their business strategies, and may even incur negative impacts on their reputation if their data is used for unpopular public policies, such as extended lockdowns to address the spread of an infectious disease. But perhaps the greatest challenge the private sector faces to sharing mobility data is the lack of regulatory clarity on what types of data firms should share, whom they should be sharing with, and for what purposes.

To address these challenges and create opportunities for social good, policymakers in the EU should work to encourage the reuse of private sector mobility data. This report offers several recommendations for how EU policymakers can support unlocking private sector mobility data for social good:

  • Revise the Data Governance Act (DGA) to allow private sector firms to be listed in national registers of recognized data altruism organizations
  • Pilot a common European data space for human mobility that researchers can use for social good
  • Issue a Horizon Europe challenge to encourage researchers to use the data space for specific problems in the public interest
  • Proactively support experimentation of methods that use mobility data for social good
  • Draft a common EU approach for the use of mobility data in emergency contexts to support future public health and humanitarian-crisis exit strategies
  • Pursue global partnerships in mobility data
How the EU Can Unlock the Private Sector’s Human-Mobility Data for Social Good