Forget vaccinations or medicine to stop an outbreak of malaria or dengue, cellphone data may be all it takes.
Research out of EPFL and Masshuttets Institute of Technology has found that mobile phone location data can be critical in understanding how diseases are transmitted and stop them from spreading and reaching epidemic levels.
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Mobility even in cities can spread malaria, dengue
The researchers were able to show that the mobility of humans played a big role in the spread of malaria and dengue even if people are traveling short distances within cities. Their work was published in journal Scientific Reports.
"Urbanization, mobility, globalization and climate change could be all factors in the emergence of vector-borne diseases, even here in Europe," said Emanuele Massaro, the paper's lead author and a scientist at EPFL's Laboratory for Human-Environment Relations in Urban Systems (HERUS), which is led by Claudia R. Binder in a press release highlighting the work. "Until now, most research has examined how mobility affects the spread of infections in larger areas such as countries or regions. In this study, we focused on the same question, but this time in towns and cities. We also wanted to explore when people's mobile phone location data might prove useful."
Cellphone proves effective in predicting outbreaks
To determine the usefulness of cellphone data the researchers turned to the 2013 and 2014 dengue outbreaks that occurred in Singapore. They used a agent-based transmission model in which humans and mosquitoes represent agents. Applying digital simulations, they looked at that outbreak against the cases reported in 2013 and 2014.
Using mobile phone location data, census records, random mobility, and theoretical assumptions, the researchers tested how effective each data set is in predicting the spread of the dengue cases. They found the mobile phone data and census models were effective in predicting where dengue cases would show up in Singapore.
"In an emergency, having accurate information makes all the difference," said Massaro. "That's why phone location data is better than annual census records. The problem is that the data is owned by private companies. We need to think seriously about changing the law around accessing this kind of information - not just for scientific research, but for wider prevention and public health reasons."