The United States of Connectedness

Mobile phones have helped close the gap between people, connecting friends, family and co-workers across wide distances. But the lines of communication don’t follow traditional state and city boundaries and instead reflect different social influences and relationships that are sometimes harder to understand.

But a new data and visualization project called the Connected States of America helps bring some focus into the way mobile phones facilitate communications and shows how conversations and text-messages bind areas and regions together, even ones that are far apart. Researchers at the MIT Senseable City Lab, AT&T Labs-Research (s t) and IBM Research (s ibm) showed off their work Wednesday, which takes anonymous aggregated AT&T mobile phone data and creates interactive maps illustrating where calls and text messages are placed and where they connect to.

Call connections for San Francisco County

The maps show what areas are likely to be in communication with each other and how some places, sometimes in the same state, remain separated. Metropolitan regions, even ones that spill over state lines, understandably facilitate a lot of communications among people in one area. But there is a lot of back and forth that emerges between states too. For instance, Alabama and Louisiana are sister states because of the cellular traffic between the two, while parts of Tennessee, like Chattanooga, break away from the rest of Tennessee and join other neighboring states.

Looking at the map, you can see how mobile phone traffic occurs between the New York and San Francisco regions, which are very connected, but are not so related to Texas, another major population hub. Looking at SMS messages also yields slightly different results, emphasizing closer physical connections than phone calls, which can occur over wider distances. Here’s a look at a video about the project.

This is pretty cool, though some of this is intuitive. I know, for instance, that many parts of the country make calls to Los Angeles or New York, just because they’re such big places. But it’s interesting to see some of the less obvious connections. And it can have social implications that can help our government better understand how to reach out to people. The lesson is that while mobile phones can create instant communications across the entire country, they’re just tools in our hands, and our use of them is guided by many of our existing social relationships, cultural backgrounds and affinities.