Big data: How cellphones help track diseases
The same type of data used by the NSA to track terrorists can be used by public health researchers to combat the spread of diseases.
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Buckee worked with her husband, cellphone-data expert Nathan Eagle, to devise a mathematical model based on cellphone call records. At the time, Mr. Eagle was already working with Kenyan cellphone providers, harvesting data to predict when a customer might try to change phone companies. The couple figured out that the disparate data sets that Eagle used to track consumer behavior could also be used to provide a new method to look at the spread of disease.Skip to next paragraph
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Every time an individual calls or sends a text message from a mobile phone, the cellular network logs the caller’s approximate location. In Buckee's study, individuals were assigned a specific area based on the location from which they placed most of their calls. Those same areas were assigned malaria risk ratings, based on how many cases of the disease were reported there.
With cellphone data and malaria rates in hand, researchers devised a mathematical model to predict the probability of people being infected or becoming infected in each region. The cellphone records used in the study were from mid-2008 to mid-2009, so the team was able to confirm its calculations with recorded malaria statistics from the same period. (The number of cellphone users during the time of the survey was approximately 60 percent of the population, Buckee says.)
“As Kenya moves towards malaria elimination, one of the critical factors is trying to figure out” how the disease spreads, Bukcee says. Public health workers have already determined how to combat malaria when the disease is located, but the cellphone data would allow health workers to target disease control programs more efficiently, she says.
But there are several problems with this kind of research. The companies that own the data have to agree to hand it over. And before they do, the data needs to be scrubbed of any personal information, says Mr. Eagle. Public health ethics do not allow for targeted tracking of individuals without their consent.
"The operators need to feel good about" giving researchers access to the their anonymized data sets, he says. And although any personal information that could connect individuals to their records would stay on the phone company's server, it is still a hassle for company's to anonymize this data and give it to public health workers. Plus, health researchers need to be trusted with not overreaching, even though richer, more specific information could make their work more effective.