Social schedules should follow the natural daylight patterns


Scientists conducted “reality mining” of anonymous mobile phone records from about one million people.

Despite artificial lightning and social conventions, the dynamics of daylight still influence the daily activities of people living in modern, urban environments, according to new research published in PLOS Computational Biology.

Like many other organisms, humans have an internal biological clock that helps them adapt to different environmental cues, such as light and darkness. In modern cities, people also must adhere to a social clock of daily activities, such as work, leisure, and schooling.

These findings could have implications for human health, the economy, power consumption, and public transportation, all of which are influenced by the timing of human activity. If, for instance, the natural schedules differ from the social ones, there can be consequences on human performance and sleep health. Instead, synchronizing the artificial lightning correctly with natural human rhythms can have both economic and environmental impacts.

“How does the daily rhythm of humans pan out under the simultaneous ticking of these two clocks?”, asked Daniel Monsivais from Aalto University, who led the new study. To find the answer, he and his colleagues employed an emerging technique known as “reality mining,” in which patterns of human activity are inferred by analyzing the use of wireless devices.

The researchers obtained anonymous records of call times over the course of one year for about one million mobile phone users in a country in southern Europe. A user’s sleep/wake cycle was inferred by noting daily periods when their calling activity started and ceased.

Analysis of the call records revealed that, despite a shared time zone, the timing of sunrise and sunset at people’s respective longitudes still guided the start and end of their daily activities. Over one year, changes in the timing of daily activities corresponded to seasonal variations in the timing of sunrise and sunset.

The researchers also found that women tended to sleep more than men and that duration of sleep varied with age. As people approached adulthood, they tended to sleep for longer amounts of time. Sleep duration then decreased slightly for middle-aged people and increased again in the elderly.

“The next step in our study is to use this type of big data approach to understand the difference in behavior between urban and rural populations, as it pertains to the role of social and biological clocks in their daily routines”, Monsivais says.

This work was supported by the Academy of Finland, EU HORIZON 2020 FET Open RIA project, CONACYT, Mexico, Grant and European Research Council for the Advanced Investigator Grant.

More information:

Article in PLOS Computational Biology

Daniel Monsivais
Aalto University
tel. +358 46 613 9502

Monsivais D, Ghosh A, Bhattacharya K, Dunbar RIM, Kaski K (2017) Tracking urban human activity from mobile phone calling patterns. PLoS Comput Biol 13(11): e1005824.