The amount of time people in a given area spend using their cell phones shrinks when the job market begins to dry up, according to a study co-authored by researchers at MIT.
The study, which tracked people living in a European town in which a plant had just closed, found that the total number of calls made by laid-off workers fell by 51%, when compared to the phone activity of the employed. Individually, each unemployed worker made 5% fewer calls.
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Grad student Jameson Toole, who co-authored the paper, said that this is a punishing fact of life for newly unemployed people.
"People's social behavior diminishes, and that might be one of the ways layoffs have these negative consequences," he told MIT's news service. "It hurts the networks that might help people find the next job."
The plant closure studied in the paper, titled "Tracking Employment Shocks Using Mobile Phone Data," occurred in 2006, putting 1,100 workers in a town of 15,000 out of work. Using data about the layoffs, the research team created an algorithm that analyzed phone-use data in the area, finding that unemployment correlated with decreased cell phone use. They then broadened the experiment to 52 provinces of an unnamed European country, using data from the EU Labor Force Survey, with similar results.
The idea isn't to replace traditional methods of measuring economic activity, but merely to offer an additional tool one that could potentially offer almost real-time information on employment levels. It's similar to another MIT initiative, the "Billion Prices Project," which tracks sales data to create a live index of inflation, and Toole said that it was one of the inspirations for the research.