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The mobile phone as a research tool into travel behavior

Because of their geo-location function, smartphones have become a promising research tool for analyzing the movements of samples of individuals.

Zachary Patterson used an application to collect data on the movements of 900 Concordia students, professors and employees.

Zachary Patterson, a researcher in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment at Concordia University, has developed an application for Android and iOS that collects travel information. From November to December 2014, he used it to collect data on the movements of 900 Concordia students, professors and employees, who agreed to let the application run on their phones for a period of up to two weeks, allowing researchers to analyze their travel behavior.

The fact that the researchers were able to create such a good-sized representative sample shows the willingness of people of different ages and genders to take part in studies using the geo-localization functions of their smartphones.

This approach was also able to capture a more complete picture of travel routes. Traditional origin-destination surveys are conducted by means of a questionnaire asking participants to describe all trips taken over the course of the day. Some information is invariably forgotten, whereas the smartphone application accurately records every detail of their movements.

The impact of this study has extended beyond Québec’s borders: in fact, the application developed by Zachary Patterson’s team was used in Accra, the capital of Ghana, to map the city’s public transit system. The results were then stored in an open-access database and applied to a variety of projects in Ghana.

In upcoming months the researcher will be collaborating with Québec organisations such as the Société de transport de Montréal, Bixi and the Ministre des Transports du Québec on various surveys aimed at better understanding people’s travel habits and the use of different modes of transportation.