The use of mobile phone data (left) proved more accurate for estimating the spatial spread of dengue fever than a traditional diffusion model (right).
Graphic from Impact of human mobility on the emergence of dengue epidemics in Pakistan, published by PNAS
Cell phones automatically keep track of the nearest cell tower, which is why phone records can be used to determine where people were at a particular time—a principle already employed to generate alibis and convictions in the legal world. Now, researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH) have found a potentially life-saving use for these cell-phone records: to predict the spread of epidemic diseases.
By combining the phone records of around 40 million Pakistani mobile-phone subscribers (representing 22 percent of the country’s population) with climate data, the Harvard group was able to predict the spreading patterns of dengue fever, a potentially deadly tropical disease endemic in that nation. The investigators matched the trajectory of the dengue virus in a 2013 epidemic to the traveling pattern of mobile users, and found that the latter could predict the former fairly accurately. “This provides a more accurate forecast of where dengue is going to [appear] as compared to other approaches that use environmental variables or proxies of human movements like road networks,” says Caroline Buckee, senior author of the study and an assistant professor of epidemiology. For low-income countries without well-developed road networks, mobile data can be particularly helpful for tracking the spread of epidemics, adds Amy Wesolowski, a postdoctoral research fellow and lead author of the study.
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