Program Uses Towers to Track Data Points in Real Time

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is working on The UrbanSense program, which uses data from cell towers to estimate population density in real time, reported GCN. ORNL researchers are passively collecting anonymous cellular tower data from the open broadcasts mobile network as part of the program. UrbanSense is also tracking air quality, water monitoring and traffic for the city of Oak Ridge.

According to Gautam Thakur, a researcher with the lab’s Urban Dynamics Institute, “Every time your cell phone comes into the tower area, the tower uses that information to get an idea of how many people are potentially in a given area. These data are anonymous and openly available as part of the LTE [physical layer]. Basically, this gives us a random number that we can use to estimate population density using models.”

For the lab to collect data in real time, they created a model that uses census data, land use data and other information to distribute the population in a “gridded format.” The platform also gathers open-source, anonymous data from virtual and physical sensors to help generate population dynamics. Virtual sensors include online public datasets and self-reported data from social media, such as Facebook “check-ins” and Twitter posts, Thakur said.  

Historically, cities have relied on census reports and static data that are infrequently updated. The population insights gained from the program will help city officials optimize infrastructure and help with long-term planning.

According to Oak Ridge Director of Administrative Services Bruce Applegate, “The real-time data collected will not only increase our understanding of the city’s usage by residents and visitors but will also aid in the selection and prioritization of city-funded projects.”

As a next step, the lab is working to optimize UrbanSense and expand on the prototype to give other cities the opportunity to implement the technology.

November 13, 2017               

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