Lack of quality demographic data is a major obstacle to infrastructure planning in the developing world. In a recent study, researchers from the Santa Fe Institute in the US, the University of Manchester in the UK, and the Universite Cheikh Anta Diop in Senegal used anonymised cell phone data to assess the feasibility of various electrification options for rural communities in Senegal.

Over 70 percent of Senegal's rural population lacks access to electricity, and the difficulty of predicting their potential electricity consumption discourages costly infrastructure investments.

Nearly all Senegalese carry cell phones, however, and the country has become inundated with cell towers - many of them running on their own diesel generators.

As a first step towards predicting power needs, the researchers measured the cell phone activity at each tower, gaining unprecedented knowledge into where and when human activity takes place.

"This new, data-driven insight into the population dynamics allows us to predict local infrastructure needs with an accuracy that has never been possible before," said Markus Schlapfer, one of the study's co-authors and a postdoctoral fellow at the Santa Fe Institute.

The metric is of particular relevance for regions where census data is outdated or lacking, researchers stated. They used their predictions to inform different planning scenarios for electrification options such as new power lines or photovoltaics-based microgrids.