December 11, 2010

THERE IS NO BRITAIN:

Call the Scots: What telephone calls can reveal about a country’s true geography (The Economist, 12/09/10)

Putting borders, national or regional, in the wrong place can be quite costly. It may distort the natural flow of commerce, services and transport. And wrongly drawn borders underlie many struggles for independence—not least in Britain, which has had a fair share of such conflicts over the centuries.

Historically researchers have used everything from labour-market statistics to data about commuter travel to calculate “optimal” borders. But such information yields only a fuzzy picture. That is why the authors of this study opted for more fine-grained data: landline calls, which have the advantage of pinpointing geographical location (and the drawback of excluding communication on mobile phones). Some 12 billion calls within Great Britain in August 2005 were analysed, by phone number and duration. To protect the callers’ identity, part of the phone numbers was deleted, leaving just enough digits to locate them roughly.

The study’s hypothesis was that the more and the longer people in two locations talk on the telephone, the more the places belong to the same region. To prove it, they divided the country into “pixels” covering nearly 100 square kilometres. They measured how strongly these were connected in terms of “talk time”, and used several algorithms to group the pixels into larger regions.

Unsurprisingly, the regions based on human interaction coincide largely with administrative ones (see map). After all, they have evolved over many years. But two differences stand out. Parts of Wales seem more connected to the West and East Midlands regions than to other bits of Wales. And west of London, where many of Britain’s high-tech firms are based, a new region is developing.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 11, 2010 6:08 AM
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