Mobile phone data ‘could help locate Ebola cases’

Ebola epicentre
Copyright: Flickr/European Commission

Speed read

  • A Swedish non-profit uses cellphone data to identify where Ebola can be found
  • It boosts aid efforts, especially in places where contact tracing is difficult
  • But an expert says its use without informed consent in crises is an issue

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[CAPE TOWN] Tracking the timely movement of mobile phone users in West Africa could help predict where the next cases of Ebola will emerge, according to researchers.
Researchers from Flowminder Foundation, a non-profit organisation based in Sweden, say anonymised, aggregated Call Data Records (CDR) can help generate patterns of a person’s geographic presence and movements, stating that the technology could help track Ebola virus and complement aid efforts.
According to a statement released by the WHO last week (3 October), the virus has infected 7,470 people, resulting in 3,431 deaths.

“In situations, where it is difficult to perform good contact tracing, these data can help in predicting where infected persons can appear.”

Linus Bengtsson, Flowminder Foundation

“In situations, where it is difficult to perform good contact tracing, these data can help in predicting where infected persons can appear,” says Flowminder co-founder Linus Bengtsson.
Models built on mobile data from during the outbreak could also be used to examine the effects of the unprecedented travel restrictions, such as Senegal’s decision to close its border with Guinea on in August this year.
“The data provide us with an understanding of how people react to travel restrictions and what effect they have on the mobility of resources and healthcare workers,” Flowminder researcher Andy Tatem adds.
Tatem explains: “With network operators serving substantial proportions of the population across entire nations, the movements of millions of people at fine spatial and temporal scales can be measured in near real-time”.
Flowminder’s data have been used in past disease response efforts, such as monitoring the spread of cholera in the wake of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
The foundation says its initial mobility maps for West Africa, published this year (20 August) on its website, are based on CDRs obtained from Orange Telecom in Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal before the epidemic.
The data provide a baseline from which mobility estimates for the infected region can be created. The information is being used by WHO collaborating centres in disease modelling, including those at UK-based Oxford University and Imperial College London.
The researchers say that through collaboration with network operators and agencies tasked with Ebola response worldwide, including the GSMA (association of mobile network operators), they will be able to produce maps and models that reflect more timely movement patterns.
“Even though the data analysed for these outputs are completely anonymous, they come from individuals’ phone use and should be treated as sensitive data from a privacy and commercial perspective,” Bengtsson explains.
Ivan Gayton, technological innovation adviser at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF),
says privacy concerns are warranted, calling such data models as “double-edged sword”.
“Obviously, the more we know about what people are doing in infected areas and the movements they are making, the more we can protect them,” explains Gayton, who is involved in MSF mobile technology projects in West Africa.

 This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.