Strength In Numbers: How Mobile Phone Data Can Mean a Healthier World

Will Mobile Phone Data Improve the World’s Health?

The smartest doctors don’t wait for symptoms to appear before they start fighting disease. They go out and hunt for them using mobile phone data.

When hurricanes rip up lives and landscapes, as they do every year in places like the Caribbean, medical officials quickly track deadly disease outbreaks in the devastated areas. In the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in 2016, cholera spread rapidly through Haiti after rising storm waters flooded latrines, contaminated wells, and overflowed rivers, creating a breeding ground for the waterborne disease. Timely and accurate information was essential for containment.

Getting the right supplies to the right place in a disaster zone is an enormous logistical challenge. Increasingly, the rapid gathering and analysis of data can be just as valuable as cash, medicine, or equipment. Lives, truly, are at stake. And a key to saving those lives and tracking disease in this mobile age is with our cell phones.

Strength In Numbers: How Mobile Phone Data Can Mean a Healthier World

For disease trackers, the gathering of millions of hyperlocal mobile phone data points is a valuable tool for researchers scrambling to stay ahead of disease. In Pakistan and Zambia, health officials contained Dengue fever outbreaks weeks earlier than they could in the past by using anonymized electronic survey data gathered over smartphones. In the past, field workers hand-gathered reports from hospitals, data that could take weeks to gather and assimilate, and which was prone to errors in the confusing and messy aftermath of natural disasters.

A similar effort was made in Namibia, where satellite imagery was paired with cell phone records to map the environmental conditions in which malaria parasites and mosquitos thrive and where the population was migrating. Those vectors could help aid workers pinpoint locations for insecticide spraying.

Tracking Population Health Via Telco Data

These methods, and others like them, represent the forefront of a field known as digital epidemiology, in which the health of a population is assessed in real time via its digital traces. They’re having a revolutionary impact on the way we monitor global health outcomes and behaviors, and the potential contributors are huge: By 2020, 90 percent of the world’s population over six years old will have a mobile phone, and smartphone subscriptions are expected to top 6.1 billion. Today, nearly 90% of the world’s population lives with mobile cellular network coverage.1

Increasingly, the data we generate will not only help stem the spread of disease, but also assist the millions of people whose lives are turned upside down every year by natural disasters, like the ones we’ve seen recently in the Caribbean and Mexico.

Strength In Numbers: How Mobile Phone Data Can Mean a Healthier World

The everyday movements of humans create the dynamic links that connect populations and enable geographic spread and sustained transmission of infectious diseases.  Sudden impact disasters put this into overdrive, so it’s critical to track these moves. These migrations can occur prior to events, due to early warning messages, or happen afterwards as residents flee uninhabitable lands and homes. During such crises, there is a severe lack of on-the-ground information, preventing relief organizations from delivering the right supplies to the right places in a timely way.

Accessing the Mobile Phone Data Points in Our Pockets

Enter the smartphone. Each time a call or text is sent over a mobile device, it leaves a small record about time and location with the network. The data is anonymized so it is not possible to know the individuals behind the phones. In aggregate, however, it allows researchers to track shifting populations and migration patterns by days, weeks or months.

Strength In Numbers: How Mobile Phone Data Can Mean a Healthier World

“If you want to learn how diseases spread and stay ahead of them you have to figure out how and where people are moving,” said Dr. Linus Bengtsson, executive director of the Flowminder Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Stockholm that works to improve public health in low- and middle-income countries.  “In this regard, the mobile phone can be an incredibly powerful tool.”

Gathering mobile phone data was a key part of a suite of health and disease monitoring tools that were applied soon after the Nepal earthquake of 2015 and the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Together, they can help build accurate models of population displacements where information is limited. Adds Bengtsson: “In less developed countries where there is very little data, we’re just trying to find out the way out of the dark.”

Strength In Numbers: How Mobile Phone Data Can Mean a Healthier World

Similarly, researchers in southern Bangladesh analyzed records from 6 million mobile phones to identify population movements after Cyclonic Storm Viyaru carved its way through Southern and Southeast Asia in 2013, leaving a path of death and destruction across six countries. Their analysis revealed that some used cyclone shelters, but others left their homes late or not at all, in order to safeguard their property. Such high-risk behavior could help target warning messages for future disaster preparation plans.  Long-term, too, this research may finally allow scientists to understand how climate change is impacting the planet’s migration patterns.

Tracking via mobile phone data is not without its challenges. Downed power lines, damaged phone networks, and water-soaked phones could knock out the whole system. Moreover, the density of telco towers is usually in highly populated areas, so the movements in rural areas where towers are far apart and rising waters are threatening homes may be difficult to accurately track. In addition, protocols must be developed to ensure privacy is safeguarded appropriately.

But digital epidemiology promises to have a large impact in the future of health care. Emerging trends in data analytics also include monitoring the results of on-line search engines, a potential game-changer for tracking the outbreak and location of illnesses around the world. Health researchers have already learned that determining how many times “flu” appears in regional search queries produces more accurate data on outbreaks than slower in-person field searches.  The development of sophisticated online health maps and open-source public health intelligence systems that pinpoint global outbreaks in real time are also expected. Through a constantly updated automated process, the system will monitor, organize, and disseminate online information about emerging diseases that everyone — from international travelers to local health departments — can tap into via their smartphone.

For everyone, the gathering and understanding of these new data streams will mean the possibility of a healthier life, free of toxic disease outbreaks.

“It’s fantastic when you turn abstract data pulled from the cloud into something that can change people’s lives on the ground,” Bengtsson said. “That’s pretty cool.”

This content is produced by WIRED Brand Lab in collaboration with Western Digital Corporation.

1. Ericsson Mobility Report On The Pulse of The Networked Society, June 2015