MIT recently published a fascinating piece of research, looking at how social interactions can help to define regions based on a massive sample of land-line telephone calls across Great Britain . They used the anonymised information on the 12 billions phone calls made in Britain in a typical month to see if there were any patterns which could describe natural regions based on human interactions. The results are quire extraordinary!

A quick glance at the resulting maps will tell you that Scots only really talk to other Scots (left-most map below), similarly Londoners but to a lesser extent. The rest of the country tells a rather different story, challenging some of our traditional assumptions about regional identity.

[singlepic id=33 w=550 h=413 float=center]

The right-hand map shows an optimised partitioning of the call data, showing that, for example, Welsh people fall into three regions, only one of  which is solely in Wales. North Wales communicates most strongly with Manchester and the southern part of what we normally associate with the North West; while Mid-Wales links most naturally with the West Midlands. A fair conclusion from this is that if the UK were to be fully devolved, it would make little difference to the day to day communications of the Scottish population, but it would have a profound impact on the Welsh population.

The Yorkshire-Lancashire rivalry also takes a bit of a knock, with West Yorkshire more likely to communicate with the people of Lancashire than their White Rose brethren; and the more rural Cumbrians are perhaps a mini region of their own.

In checking the validity of their approach, the researches aggregated a number of alternative partitioning models, and this generated additional insight into regional identity.

[singlepic id=32 w=240 h=320 float=right] To the west of London the team identified what they consider to be a new region in the making – a Western Crescent formed of Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. This is the heart of England’s high-tech industries with the Silicon Corridor along the M4 and Oxfordshire’s Science Vale with Oxford University and Harwell. What it interesting is the ambiguity of the areas communication patterns – rather than having a very clear and arguably insular regional identity, this Western Crescent is something of a communications hub, reaching out to much of central England.

Why is this important?

The traditional regional boundaries being largely consigned to civic roles with political and economic control being passed to new Local Enterprise Partnerships. What these maps suggest is that the regional identities were already being challenged and that perhaps the more fluid LEP structure would be more able to mould itself to our day to day lives. While the South England region, which spanned Kent and Oxfordshire, meant very little to anyone except central Government, an Oxfordshire LEP able to partner with a Thames Valley LEP may be more successful.

And from my own personal perspective such an approach also means its possible to map telecommunications networks to human interactions. The formative signs of a new high-technology region around Oxfordshire sure deserves a commensurate broadband infrastructure? And its role as a natural communications hub surely makes it the place to start building the future? The research should also have a big impact on Cumbria’s Big Society “vanguard”, and ought to shape Herefordshire’s thinking as they develop their broadband pilot.

As I start to work with the new Oxfordshire LEP on their approach to broadband I’m sure this research will become something we refer back to.

  1. cyberdoyle says:

    Interesting. What do you think about the fact that some regions without adequate broadband access may tend to use the phone more? Have you worked any of that into the equations?

    • adrian says:

      Is it a fact? If you have any data I’d love to model it. I’d be surprised if it were significant though. I’m assuming the hypothesis is that people with better broadband use VoIP more, but although Skype is now the biggest international voice carrier in the world I doubt they make much of a dent in the 12 billion traditional land-line calls made each month in the UK, and given Skype will happily work on a 512kbps line it doesn’t exclude a significant proportion of the population. Plotting the rise of VoIP traffic against land-line calls and the call patterns would be very interesting though.

  2. Somerset says:

    Is there a link with online usage where we tend to connect to servers located in data centres for, email, amazon (!) etc.?

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