Researchers and industry leaders gathered at the first ever virtual Mobile Tartu conference on 30 June. The field is blooming with research involving new sources of location data and no lockdown can keep people from sharing their latest findings, featuring how to best use location data from mobile phones and other sources. Mobile Tartu is a biennial academic conference on human mobility and mobility data, held this year for the 7th time. The conference brings together academics, international organisations and industry professionals from around the world.
The event was hosted from the new Delta building in Tartu. Photo: Videal Productions OÜ
There was a wide variety of fascinating themes covered this year, highlighting the versatility of mobile positioning data (MPD) and location data in statistical, mobility and tourism analysis. We put together a quick overview of some key points this year’s Mobile Tartu brilliantly brought to the table. 

Mobile data has a variety of faces and uses

The conference brilliantly showed the various sources of mobile data and its range of applications. The presentations displayed clever uses of mobile positioning, bluetooth, and social media data, among other spatio-temporal data that describes human behaviour. From tourism to statistics to urban planning, these unique data sources were applied in many domains. Prof. Haosheng Huang (Ghent University) took the exploration of the uses of mobile and location data even further, saying that “the end users of location-based services won't be just humans but intelligent agents as well.” 

Increased demand for MPD during a global pandemic

The conference demonstrated an increased interest in MPD fuelled by COVID-19. During the peak of the pandemic, governments and international organisations acknowledged the value of mobile data in crisis response. A presentation from Erki Saluveer, CEO of Positium, showcased how Estonia managed to harness MPD to improve decision-making during the COVID-19 lockdowns. The data managed to show typical mobility patterns around Estonia and compare them to mobility patterns after lockdown practices took effect to determine how well the population were following the measures. As Saluveer puts it, "the most useful method for fighting COVID-19 is for governments to see if the policies are having an effect.”

Social insights from mobile data have great value

A bigger emphasis this year was on social and demographic insights from mobile data. Why is this an important development? It allows for a more in-depth understanding of how mobile data can be used for the benefit of our societies. Veronika Mooses (Mobility Lab of the University of Tartu) showed ethnic differences in transnational activity space that emerged from mobile phone data. Robin C.O. Palmberg (KTH Royal Institute of Technology) explored the health impacts of one’s movement in space and time. I-Ting Chuang (Singapore University of Technology and Design) spoke about how they used social media to map diversity and density within Singapore. Esteban Moro (Carlos III University of Madrid) said in his keynote speech that "inequality is encoded in our lifestyles, not where we live," indicating that people's daily mobility and behaviour will give more insight into social issues like inequality and segregation than simple information about demographics.

Positium's CEO, Erki Saluveer, speaking at Mobile Tartu 2020. Photo: Siim Esko

Mobile data requires wider acceptance

Many researchers raised concerns of data accessibility and acceptance in society. Anto Aasa (Mobility Lab of the University of Tartu) expressed worry about how difficult it currently is to obtain data for time use: “Currently there has been no digitalisation in Europe in this field, the cost of one respondent is staggering and still there is a self-reporting bias.” There is room for change in European statistics. Mobile data is, of course, sensitive data, and therefore needs approval from the public. As Ronald Jansen (UN Statistics Division) puts it, “both government and public have to have trust in MPD.” But will the public understand the benefits of having mobile data as a source of statistics? Some food for thought from Prof Rob Kitchin (Maynooth University): "Do we want civil liberties or public health, or civil liberties and public health?"

Traditional meets innovation

Although mobile data can be a "very powerful new data source for analysing mobility", the case study from BPS Statistics Indonesia also shows it is a "good complementary source for event analysis". In analysing Asian Games in 2018, they combined traditional data collection methods with mobile positioning data to get the best overview of the economic impact of the event. Another good example came from Moscow, Russia. Roman Babkin (Russian University of Economics; Moscow State University) analysed how official statistics of Moscow fails to estimate the accurate population balance and thus commuting between the city and the outer region. They used mobile positioning data to give better estimations and explained how this knowledge can be implemented for better transport and spatial planning. 

Behind the scenes at Mobile Tartu 2020. Photo: Videal Productions OÜ

The pros and cons of virtual conferences future

Surely you, too, have been conflicted at some point whether to attend one conference over another, happening on similar dates but in different countries. A digital broadcast can give you the opportunity to attend conferences from across the globe from the comfort of your home office (not to mention the environmental benefits of reducing short-stay travel). On the other hand, participants cannot interact with each other quite as well on a digital conference platform. Discussion of the day’s topics and making plans for future collaborations are a big part of such events. However, we might see more hybrid events in the future, where the core enthusiasts are on location and others interested can join in online.

What are your takeaways from this year’s Mobile Tartu conference?

Share your thoughts on Twitter using #MobileTartu.

This event is organised by the Doctoral School of Earth Sciences and Ecology at the University of Tartu, supported by the European Union, the European Regional Development Fund (University of Tartu’s ASTRA project PER ASPERA). Positium was a sponsor for the event. More information at

Add a comment

Email again: