Cell phone data to monitor spread of infectious diseases

Cell phone data to monitor spread of infectious diseases.
Cell phone data to monitor spread of infectious diseases.
Vast datasets from tracking mobile phone data could allow health professionals to track the infectious diseases that spread each season.

A team of scientists from Princeton University and Harvard University anonymously used mobile phone records from over 15 million people. This data allowed the researchers to track rubella’s spread throughout Kenya. This was the first time that a study quantitatively demonstrates that data from mobile phones could predict seasonal disease patterns.

"One of the unique opportunities of mobile phone data is the ability to understand how travel patterns change over time," C. Jessica Metcalf, lead author, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and public affairs at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, said. "And rubella is a well-known seasonal disease that has been hypothesized to be driven by human population dynamics, making it a good system for us to test."

Many people associate tracking mobile phone data with invasion of privacy, not healthcare benefits, but understanding how illnesses spread each season could help health professionals to treat illnesses and use resources more wisely.

"The potential of mobile phone data for quantifying mobility patterns has only been appreciated in the last few years, with methods pioneered by authors on this paper," Amy Wesolowski, lead author and postdoctoral fellow at Harvard's School of Public Health, said. "It is a natural extension to look at seasonal travel using these data."

Further details are available in a study that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.