Reflections from the Mobile Tartu 2022 Conference and the PhD Course

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On June 29-30, human mobility researchers all over the world gathered again in Tartu for the eighth international Mobile Tartu Conference and PhD Course, which focused on mobility and mobile big data-based research. This was a happy in-person reunion of the research community after the last Mobile Tartu conference in 2020 was held virtually. This year, 100 participants from more than 20 countries arrived in Estonia with a few more online presenters.

PhD Course at Palamuse

The conference kicked off on June 28th with a PhD Course, which was held on the premises of an old parish school in Palamuse, Jõgeva county. Almost 30 PhD researchers attended the course to improve their knowledge and develop their skills in analysing mobile big data and interpreting the results. The backbone of the course was the practical hands-on workshops guided by the researchers from the Mobility Lab at the University of Tartu and the Digital Geography Lab at the University of Helsinki. PhD workshops were supported by lectures from scholars and private and public sector representatives, who addressed issues around mobile big data visualisation and use in travel behaviour analysis, business, and urban planning.

Traditional introductory circle held in Palamuse school yard. Photo credit: Lauri Kulpsoo.

The special focus of the workshops was set on different mobility data sources, data processing, contextualisation, and analysis. The participants could choose to work with smartphone-based GPS data, social media data from Twitter, or bike-share trips accompanied by additional contextual data sources, such as sociodemographic information, street-level greenery, air quality, or noise level. After a set of both guided and independent working sessions, the students presented their work and findings in a special session at the Mobile Tartu conference in Tartu.

Group working on Twitter data for cross-border mobility analysis in an old classroom in Palamuse and presenting their results in the newly renovated University of Tartu study building Oecologicium. Photo credit: Janika Raun.

Main Conference in Tartu

The international conference Mobile Tartu 2022 was held in the newly renovated study building Oecologicum under the green tree canopy of Dome Hill. The main conference started on June 29th with the second Rein Ahas lecture, held this time by Prof. Mei-Po Kwan (The Chinese University of Hong Kong). Rein Ahas Lecture series was created two years ago to honour the memory and academic legacy of the late Prof. Ahas, our dear friend, colleague, and the founder of the biennial Mobile Tartu international conference. Prof. Ahas launched mobile positioning-based mobility research and founded the Mobility Lab at the University of Tartu at the beginning of this century. He was the head of the organising committee of the Mobile Tartu conference from 2008 until 2018. The first Rein Ahas lecture was given in 2020 by Prof. Geogr Gartner (Vienna University of Technology). In this year’s lecture, Prof. Kwan emphasised the importance of spatiality and appropriate methodological approaches in research on smart cities, human health, and well-being.

Professor Mei-Po Kwan (The Chinese University of Hong Kong) gave the Rein Ahas lecture “Big data and geospatial technologies for smart cities research”. Photo credit: Lauri Kulpsoo.

Sustainable urban mobility

As a new format, this year’s Mobile Tartu conference featured two panel discussions, inspired by the topics covered earlier on both days. The first day ended with a panel discussion on sustainable urban mobility. The discussion, moderated by Assoc. Prof. Andres Sevtšuk (MIT), tackled the questions of how to achieve a real modal shift towards sustainable mobility modes and what are the best proactive ways and indicators that help monitor a city’s progress toward sustainable mobility outcomes.

Panel discussion on sustainable urban mobility. Participants from the left: Prof. Malene Freudendal-Pedersen (Aalborg University), Aksel Johannes Part (Tartu City Government), Assoc. Prof. Age Poom (University of Tartu), Prof. Frank Witlox (Ghent University/University of Tartu), and the moderator Assoc. Prof. Andres Sevtšuk (MIT). Photo credit: Lauri Kulpsoo.

The recording of the panel discussion on sustainable urban mobility

Prof. Frank Witlox (Ghent University/University of Tartu) started off with the idea that sustainable urban mobility should be fun, easy and become a daily norm, seconded by Aksel Part, the mobility specialist at the Tartu City Government, who highlighted the importance of convenience when designing urban spaces and transport policies to support sustainable travel modes. Prof. Malene Freudendal-Pedersen (Aalborg University) with extensive research experience on everyday mobility practices from the Copenhagen region emphasised the importance of reclaiming space from cars and parking spaces if we want to see a real change in daily travel behaviour toward social, environmental and individual health benefits. Assoc. Prof. Age Poom (University of Tartu) pointed out the power of temporary experimentations in travel environments and mobility services, which provide a personal experience, help reduce fear, and create demand for more permanent interventions.

The panel discussion resonated well with two other keynote speakers of the conference, Prof. Robert J Sampson (Harvard University) and Prof. Malene Freudendal-Pedersen (Aalborg University). Prof. Sampson addressed the implications of everyday urban mobility for structural connectedness, social inequality, and well-being in contemporary cities. Prof. Freudendal-Pedersen elaborated on the necessary mindset when planning for human-scale cities and sustainable future mobilities.

The keynote speech of Prof. Robert J Sampson (Harvard University): “Implications of everyday urban mobility for structural connectedness, inequality, and well-being in contemporary cities”.
The keynote speech of Prof. Malene Freudendal-Pedersen (Aalborg University): “Future urban mobilities – planning the human city”.

Mobile big data and methods

In addition to sustainable and inclusive urban mobility questions, the second focus area of this year’s conference was the use of mobility data and especially mobile phone data for producing official statistics. Estonia has been a leading country in the world in the methodology development and application of mobile phone data in official statistics. For example, Estonian Bank has used monthly international travel statistics based on mobile positioning data uninterruptedly for the last 14 years (see the blog post by the University of Tartu spin-off firm Positium). Relatedly, Positium arranged two sessions to bring together people from national statistical offices and share recently developed methodological guidance and international experience on how methodology development research has been applied in the field.

The sessions were opened by Fabio Ricciatio to give an overview of how Eurostat is trying to harmonise European legislation and open all methodologies being used for statistical production. Sweden, Netherlands, Lithuania, and Oman statistical office representatives gave an overview of their progress and problems and The United Nations Committee of Experts on Big Data and Data Science for Official Statistics (UN CEBD) introduced five new handbooks for the use of mobile phone data in different statistical domains, such as tourism, migration, dynamic population, disaster and displacement, and measuring the information society. In the discussions, it was raised that there are already a lot of methodologies developed and countries should try to apply them more and learn from each other.

Double session on the methodological guidance for using mobile phone data for official statistics, arranged by Positium.

Therefore, the second panel discussion, moderated by Prof. Tuuli Toivonen (University of Helsinki), focused on the questions of how privately held mobile big data could be used for research, official statistics, and social good more broadly. Kaja Sõstra (Statistics Estonia) emphasised the need for well-established and recognised cooperation practices between academia and statistical offices to bring mobile big data use to a new qualitative level. Assoc. Prof. Siiri Silm from Mobility Lab (University of Tartu) stated that it is time for the standardisation and harmonisation of mobile phone data-based methods internationally. Comparative studies on an international scale are needed to advance the field globally, create joint research practices and communities, and incentivise mobile network operators as data producers. Good examples from the Nordic countries were provided by Prof. John Östh (Oslo Metropolitan University) and Prof. Kimmo Kaski (Aalto University), showcasing the agency of researchers in advancing mobile phone data-based research for social good. This resonated well with his previous keynote speech on mobile data analytics and computational modelling of social networks.

Panel discussion on mobile data and methods. Participants from the left: Prof. Kimmo Kaski (Aalto University), Assoc. Prof. Siiri Silm (University of Tartu), Prof. John Östh (Oslo Metropolitan University), Kaja Sõstra (Statistics Estonia), and the moderator Prof. Tuuli Toivonen (University of Helsinki). Photo credit: Hanna Maran.

The recording of the panel discussion on mobile data and methods.
The keynote presentation by Kimmo Kaski (Aalto University): “Social physics – mobile data analytics and computational modelling of human social connectome”.


During the panel discussion, the audience could fill in an interactive feedback board with the most engaging/interesting/novel thought brought out at the conference. The result nicely summarised the various topics covered during both the formal sessions and discussions and informal activities of the conference days. We are happy to note that next to thematic and data-related keywords, the participants also emphasised our social activities, such as the popular quiz at the conference dinner or the thought-provoking performance of the magician! The unofficial follow-up event at the Emajõgi beach, sauna and barge house was only to come after that.

Word cloud of the most interesting and novel topics encountered during the Mobile Tartu 2022 Conference and the evening performance of the magician. Photo credit: Janika Raun, Age Poom.

We are very grateful to all the participants and presenters of the 8th Mobile Tartu conference and PhD course – you made it such a joyful and inspiring event! Special thanks to the workshops’ organisers Tuuli Toivonen, Christoph Fink, Olle Järv and Oleksandr Karasov from the Digital Geography Lab at the University of Helsinki, the organising team and volunteers Siiri Silm, Mirjam Veiler, Age Poom, Janika Raun, Anto Aasa, Ago Tominga, Anniki Puura, Karl Saidla, Laura Altin, Arvi Kiik, Frank Witlox, Helena Maarja Lainjärv, Martin Haamer, Bernand Niitra and Kaur-Markus Mirka from the Mobility Lab, University of Tartu, and our co-organisers Erki Saluveer and Kadri Arrak from Positium.

The Mobile Tartu 2022 Conference and the PhD Course were organised by the Mobility Lab, University of Tartu, in cooperation with the Digital Geography Lab, University of Helsinki, and the mobile data analytics company Positium from Estonia. The Network on European Communications and Transport Activities Research (NECTAR) and United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD) co-organised dedicated sessions at the conference. The conference was supported by the Institute of Ecology and Earth Sciences of the University of Tartu (providing the conference venue Oecologicum), the Doctoral School of Earth Sciences and Ecology financed by the EU European Regional Development Fund (University of Tartu ASTRA project PER ASPERA), the EIT Urban Mobility Initiative co-funded by the EU and the Hawke EU Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence at the University of South Australia.

Main conference venue Oecologicum, the Institute of Ecology and Earth Sciences, University of Tartu. Photo credit: Age Poom.

We already look forward to meeting you all in Mobile Tartu 2024! 

The Mobility Lab of the University of Tartu is an interdisciplinary research group that studies human mobility and its associations with society and the environment using mobile (big) data.