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What Does Your Cell Phone Say About You?

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Researchers mine mobile data.

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The wireless world is buzzing over Apple's (AAPL) latest iPhone. The handset has yet to hit store shelves and already analysts are intuiting its fate.

Meanwhile, urban planners and sociologists are wrestling with a larger question: What can handhelds tell us about the human experience? The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that information collected anonymously by AT&T (T) and other wireless service providers is being used to track the ebb and flow of modern life.

According to The Journal, researchers are using the data to glean information about calling habits, migration patterns and other details about the day-to-day lives of average Americans. They hope the analysis will enhance emergency relief efforts, improve public transportation and reduce traffic.

Actionable information about how and when we travel could result in less gridlock on our highways - and given the price of oil, this could save millions. Online traffic reporting available through Google (GOOG) or Yahoo (YHOO) can already be used to condense the morning commute. But what if urban planners could employ migration data to better plan for population growth? Imagine alleviating a traffic bottleneck before it became one.

Sitting in traffic on a Los Angeles freeway at 11:00 a.m., battling the Midtown Manhattan crowds or mingling with the masses at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport begs the question: Is all this travel really necessary? I myself have often mused, Where's everybody going?

Tracking behavior via mobile devices could provide answers to this marginally metaphysical, potentially important question. Social mood is often a function of news and vice versa. If The New York Times ran a story that revealed Americans spend 75% of their free time in transit -- and knowing that shopping trips are already being consolidated as a result of $4 gasoline -- perhaps we'd think twice before our next non-essential outing.

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