Finally, a case of mobile-phone tracking that’s more hopeful than creepy. Malaria researchers have used 9 billion anonymized phone call records to identify disease hotspots and make smarter plans to combat it.
A team from universities and organizations in the UK, US and Namibia collected a year’s worth of phone data from 1.19 million subscribers in the African country, which represents 52 percent of the population. Information from the phones let researchers reconstruct the movement of people around the country. They then combined this with malaria diagnosis records and topographic and climate data.
“Attempts to clear the disease from an area can be ruined by highly mobile populations quickly reintroducing the parasite which causes malaria,” said Andy Tatem, a geographer at the University of Southampton and University of Florida who led the project. “Our study demonstrates that the rapid global proliferation of mobile phones now provides us with an opportunity to study the movement of people, using sample sizes running in to millions. This data, combined with disease case based mapping, can help us plan where and how to intervene.”
The researchers’ findings were published recently in Malaria Journal. They say that the phone data can be put into maps to tailor a disease eradication program for an area based on whether it exports or imports infections. The authors conclude: “The approaches presented can be rapidly updated and used to identify where active surveillance for both local and imported cases should be increased, which regions would benefit from coordinating efforts, and how spatially progressive elimination plans can be designed.”
In a University of Southampton statement, Tatem said the movement patterns the team discerned from phone data filled in a big gap needed to build more tailored public health campaigns. Using data provided by Namibian service provider Mobile Telecommunications Limited, the team aggregated movements of mobile users between urban and rural. They combined this movement information with results of rapid malaria diagnostic tests and satellite imagery to complete the picture. The test study looked at data in 2010-2011 and resulted in the targeted distribution of insecticide-treated bed netting in three regions in 2013.
“If we are to eliminate this disease, we need to deploy the right measures in the right place, but figures on human movement patterns in endemic regions are hard to come by and often restricted to local travel surveys and census-based migration data,” he said. “The use of mobile phone data is one example of how new technologies are overcoming past problems of quantifying and gaining a better understanding of human movement patterns in relation to disease control.”
This piece first appeared in the Txchnologist.