Human Mobility Study Meets Ethics Approval

June 6, 2008

Privacy of users protected by "anonymized" data survey

Northeastern University Professor Albert-László Barabási and his team have done groundbreaking research into the nature of human mobility. The University is proud of that research, which was not merely accepted by the peer-reviewed journal Nature but won pride of place on the cover of its June 5 edition.

Unfortunately, one media report mischaracterized the research team’s methodology and cast aspersions on its ethics, and that story has been circulated widely online and in print.

Northeastern University takes issues of ethics and research protocol very seriously, and the institution has appropriate policies in place to ensure the proper treatment of both human and animal subjects.

The press report alleging that Professor Barabási’s research did not pass any ethics reviews, however, is completely false.

The study relied on a sample from anonymized, aggregate billing data from cell-phone users in an unidentified European country. The Institutional Review Board at the U.S. Office of Naval Research, which funded this study as part of a larger pool of research into human mobility patterns, reviewed the proposal in June 2007 and determined that it did not involve human subjects.

Professor Barabási spent a good deal of time in the course of study ensuring that the privacy of the cell-phone users was not breached, and he and co-investigators participated in ethics and privacy training at the outset of the study.

Research examining human mobility and the findings of this study in particular will have significance for epidemic forecasting, emergency response, urban planning and traffic engineering.

Northeastern University looks forward to more such notable and field-leading research from Professor Barabási in the future.

About Northeastern

Founded in 1898, Northeastern University is a private research university located in the heart of Boston. Northeastern is a leader in interdisciplinary research, urban engagement, and the integration of classroom learning with real-world experience. The university's distinctive cooperative education program, where students alternate semesters of full-time study with semesters of paid work in fields relevant to their professional interests and major, is one of the largest and most innovative in the world. The University offers a comprehensive range of undergraduate and graduate programs leading to degrees through the doctorate in six undergraduate colleges, eight graduate schools, and two part-time divisions. For more information, please visit www.northeastern.edu.

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