Net­work sci­en­tists at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity have cre­ated a math­e­mat­ical model that can sim­u­late human mobility over the course of sev­eral months or even years.

The results of the study were reported this week in the online edi­tion of Nature Physics magazine.

Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Physics Albert-​​László Barabási and his team uncov­ered the pat­terns char­ac­ter­izing human mobility by ana­lyzing the real-​​time move­ments of three mil­lion anony­mous cell-​​phone users and the anonymized posi­tional records of one thou­sand users whose loca­tion was recorded every hour for a two-​​week period.

A pre­vious study con­ducted by Barabási’s team found that human mobility is 93 per­cent pre­dictable in the short-​​term, a result that could be applied to revamping our system of traffic control.

The team’s newest research find­ings could be applied to solving much larger prob­lems in fields as diverse as public health, city plan­ning and eco­nomic fore­casting, says Barabási, who is also director of Northeastern’s world-​​leading Center for Com­plex Net­work Research.

Using the new model, net­work sci­en­tists could accu­rately pre­dict the spread of bio­log­ical pathogens in a human pop­u­la­tion or track the pro­lif­er­a­tion of mobile-​​phone viruses.

Our model cap­tures the uni­versal prop­er­ties of human mobility,” said Chaoming Song, research asso­ciate for the Center for Com­plex Net­work Research and lead author of the paper. “That is, if the model gen­er­ates huge amounts of tra­jec­to­ries, it raises quite sim­ilar pat­terns as the real ones across a population.”

Con­ven­tional models for human mobility have relied unsuc­cess­fully on tracking the mobility pat­terns of ani­mals, said Song. That hasn’t worked because humans gen­er­ally travel short dis­tances and follow simple repro­ducible pat­terns, whereas ani­mals reg­u­larly move over hun­dreds or even thou­sands of miles.

The team found that people only move across about 12 miles of their neigh­bor­hoods each year, Song said, adding that the number of dis­tinct places that humans visit decreases rapidly over time. Migrating ani­mals explore as much as 6,000 miles.

Addi­tional coau­thors on the paper, titled “Mod­eling the Scaling Prop­er­ties of Human Mobility,” are Tal Koren, a research asso­ciate in the Center for Com­plex Net­work Research, and Pu Wang, a post­doc­toral research asso­ciate in civil and envi­ron­mental engi­neering at MIT and a former research assis­tant at the Center for Com­plex Net­work Research.