How Cell Phone Data May Help Fight Disease Outbreaks

Tracking the spread of a disease can be incredibly difficult, especially if there isn’t much reliable data to work with. Scientists who study the spread of disease have typically relied on computer models that focus on the patterns of human movement and travel which are largely based on predictions and estimates. Now that an overwhelming majority of people carry cell phones, these scientists are turning to mobile phone records to gather more accurate data about population movements.

While businesses and government agencies have been tracking people via their mobile phones for years, using this data to produce more accurate models of disease epidemics is a relatively new concept. A team of researchers led by Flavio Finger at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale Lausanne in Switzerland have recently used cell phone data from Senegal to more accurately model the course of a cholera outbreak from 2005.

The team found that the timing of a population surge in 2013 paralleled the outbreak of cholera during the Grand Magal in 2005, a major religious pilgrimage. By using cell phone information to track how populations moved from area to area, they were able to reproduce a more accurate model of the peak outbreaks in major cities as well as the spread of the disease by pilgrims returning to their homes.

Although this is a major step forward for disease control, the model does have flaws. For one, the model was solely based on data that was not collected during the study, so there may be discrepancies. Another major drawback is that although the practice of using cell phone data to track and influence behavior is becoming more widely accepted, service providers may not be open to sharing their data so easily, which can make deploying this model during the course of an epidemic difficult and painfully slow. Regardless, Finger and his team are working on a way to quickly deploy the model at the start of a disease outbreak so the global population can have a better way to monitor and control any future epidemics.

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