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Mobility Data Shows Movement Away from Some Urban Areas After Deadly Earthquake

A 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Turkey and Syria earlier this week, killing thousands. Mobility data from Meta shows those in movement aren't going far, just out of the way of the wreckage.


Turkey-Syria Earthquake 2023

Movement areas in Turkey as of Feb. 8, 2023, 7 a.m. local time. Darker purple areas show zones of highest population decrease. (Crisis Ready)

After a 7.8-magnitude earthquake leveled parts of Turkey and Syria, over 20,000 were killed. Tall buildings in dense areas of Kahramanmaras crumbled and harsh winter weather caused extreme conditions for people trapped from the initial tremor and more than 100 aftershocks that followed.

International aid and response organizations are stepping in to support the Turkish relief effort, but it’s still early in the response process. Those who have been able to escape have relocated toward less dense areas, just a few kilometers away from the damage, according to findings from CrisisReady, a research-response initiative at Harvard and Direct Relief, supported by grants from the Harvard Data Science Initiative, Google.org, Data for Good at Meta, and the World Bank GFDRR.

CrisisReady has been publishing daily reports that are shared with responding government agencies, search and rescue groups, and agencies working in the disaster’s wake.

Andrew Schroeder, Direct Relief’s Vice President of Research and Analysis and co-director of CrisisReady, said that it’s too early to determine how much movement is expected across Turkish borders. However, movement patterns within the country signal people moving away from downtown core areas where buildings are unstable and damage is widespread. Anonymized and aggregated data from Meta shows a glimpse into the shift in population density leading up to, during, and after the earthquake. Internet outages were initially reported after the quake, but Schroeder said improvements have already been made.

A Crisis Ready report from Wednesday showed a population decline of almost 82% within Kahramanmaras, where the earthquake struck. Neighboring towns and areas just two to three miles away saw increases in population, suggesting that residents were fleeing more dense parts of the area to get away from tall and unstable buildings, “which is totally rational behavior because the downtown areas are where most of the collapsed or at-risk buildings are,” Schroeder said. “And that pattern is repeated in a bunch of cities and so you see an increase in (less dense) areas.”

Due to the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, mobility data in Syria isn’t publicly available.

According to Schroeder, Gaziantep, Turkey, has seen similar population shifts, as those who were able to escape have moved to the outer limits of the area, where fewer tall buildings are present.

However, the data also shows a small influx of people into the larger towns and cities, presumably first responders and emergency supporters who are working to rescue others from the rubble.

Schroeder shared that it’s too early to determine long-distance movement and given the infrastructure damage many may not have the option to leave the area.

As rescue attempts continue, looming issues like housing, transportation, and access to resources will become major issues in southern parts of Turkey. Roads and railways were likely damaged by the earthquakes, preventing long-distance travel. It’s unknown how many people will be able to safely return to their homes, or if residents will be forced to shelter elsewhere. The need for resources, or everyday needs, like food, clothing, and medications, is only expected to increase.

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