Analyzing Cellphone Data for the Greater Good

We hear a lot about the invasive use of mobile device data to target consumers. But now we have a story about cellphone data channeled for a greater good: malaria prevention.

In its World Malaria Report, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported about 216 million cases of the disease (and about 655,000 deaths) for 2010. Most of the victims lived in Africa and were quite young. "A child dies every minute from malaria" in Africa, the WHO stated. Those are grim figures, especially considering the availability of proven and effective techniques for reducing the spread of the disease. The agency has been able to focus attention on the issue in Africa, where the mortality rate has dropped 33 percent.

The key to better results is tracking not only the mosquitos carrying the disease, but also the human carriers. That's what a group of researchers from several institutions did in an innovative study combining maps of the disease with a map of people's movements derived from cellphone records. The researchers published their findings last month in Science (registration required).

"This is the first time that such a massive amount of cell phone data -- from millions of individuals over the course of a year -- has been used, together with detailed infectious disease data, to measure human mobility and understand how a disease is spreading," Caroline Buckee, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health and one of the authors of the study, said in a press release.

The amount of data the researchers worked with is certainly big -- calls and texts involving almost 15 million Kenyan mobile phone subscribers, nearly 12,000 cell towers, and 692 different settlements from June 2008 to June 2009. The researchers correlated that data with a 2009 map of malaria cases. On that basis, they were able to figure out the likelihood of infection for people passing through locations associated with the disease. According to the research, Nairobi is a hub for this kind of activity.

The map incorporating cellphone data identifies "source areas" and "sink areas" for malaria. The methods for preventing the spread of the disease differ in source and sink areas, as CNN reported. For source areas, the study's recommendations include "indoor residual spraying, vector habitat removal, insecticides, drug administration, and bed-net use." For sink areas, the recommendations revolve around human behavior: becoming aware of places to avoid or proceed cautiously. This type of activity is crucial to preventing the spread of the disease, because some infected people show no symptoms.

The researchers also said these techniques can prove helpful in battling other diseases. "As mobile phone data sets become increasingly available and representative of entire populations, we anticipate that studies like the one we present here will become common for understanding a range of different infectious diseases, as well as for gaining greater insight into human behavior on a population level."

Have you heard of other ways that cellphone data is being put to use for the sake of humanity? Share below.

Ariella Brown,

Ariella Brown is a social media consultant, editor, and freelance writer who frequently writes about the application of technology to business. She holds a PhD in English from the City University of New York. Her Twitter handle is @AriellaBrown.

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Re: Location Analysis and Public Health
  • 11/26/2012 8:41:56 AM

@Louis Indeed. You know, it's interesting how people have different takes on this. My main reaction was: "Isn't it great that they can use this kind of data to improve the odds of people at risk for Malaria?"  But someone who tweeted the link had this reaction: "there should be more coverage on this subject, it is where the true value of #BigData lies. Mobile data should be #OpenData:

Re: Location Analysis and Public Health
  • 11/25/2012 10:32:08 PM

@Arielle  Thank you for the link and information.  As you can see I was not aware of this issue in such detail, it is heart warming to see significant progress has in fact been made. 

Since this disease has no cure, I think the answer is upgrading infrastructures and of course education, and the former seems to be a difficult task in some parts of Africa.  Nevertheless, there are many good people working on this issue ( and others ) who I am confident will keep fighting the good fight.

Case in point, this latest effort to corral locational data from cell phones, now that is thinking outside the box !

Re: Location Analysis and Public Health
  • 11/25/2012 8:21:34 PM

@Louis, but they are making progress. "Malaria mortality rates have fallen by a remarkable 26% globally and 33% in Africa since 2000, and there has been a 5.3% drop in global malaria deaths in the past year." You can read the full report at

The hope is that the new mapping from the cellphone data with the identifications of hubs will have even greater effect in curbing the spread of the disease. Unfortuantely, there is still no real cure, so prevention is what people have to focus us to keep the mortality numbers down.

Re: Location Analysis and Public Health
  • 11/25/2012 7:53:18 PM

@Ariella  It seems to be almost an impossible task to determine more than even a rough estimate based on cell phone users but even then how does one determine that a cell owner is possibily affected ?

While I appreciate the World organization trying to put numbers on these issues, it is clear that whatever the number - it is unacceptable in this day and age. I have heard of Malaria in Africa my entire life time, while it might have been reduced or contained I don't see much progress as reflected in the numbers.

Granted this may have nothing to do with what we are discussing !  : )

Re: Location Analysis and Public Health
  • 11/25/2012 4:28:40 PM

@Louise yes, there always is some margin of error. Even the stats we have on the number of cases and deaths resulting from Malaria are estimates with margins of error. That's why the World Health Organization presents its figures as: 

"About 3.3 billion people – half of the world's population – are at risk of malaria. In 2010, there were about 216 million malaria cases (with an uncertainty range of 149 million to 274 million) and an estimated 655 000 malaria deaths (with an uncertainty range of 537 000 to 907 000)."

Re: Texting while driving
  • 11/25/2012 3:40:35 PM

@Jeff    It is interesting this rail against texting while driving, while I am all for it personally, I just find it very ironic when I recently saw something about how police offers where getting into accidents doing the very same thing that they are supposed to be looking out for in many states - I wish I could recall where I saw this !

Location Analysis and Public Health
  • 11/25/2012 3:35:44 PM

Thank you Ariella for exposing an excellent use of the byproduct of technology.  Using cell phones to "track movement" of public diseases it a great way to think outside the box.   


The analytical challenge is considerable  and the margin of error might be higher than most are comfortable with but at least a general picture can be concocted.  I am sure over time this type of analysis will improve in accuracy.

Re: Texting while driving
  • 11/24/2012 7:41:43 PM

@callmebob You're right, a mishap that leads to distraction can lead to disaster. Driving alone requires multi-tasking, as one has to keep track of what's in front, behind, on the side, on top of watching the traffic lights, signs, and bicycles that may be coming up the side. 

Re: Texting while driving
  • 11/24/2012 1:17:44 PM

@Ariella - I'm on the side of people who believe eating, drinking, and driving don't mix. I stopped doing that when the lid on my coffee popped off when I was drinking and spilled hot coffee all over my lap, car seat, and carpet. Ouch. I was lucky, it was easy to imagine the dominio effect with my coffee spill accident leading to another bigger mishap.

Combine the drinking with changing your playlist, talking to your friends in the backseat, and changing lanes on the 101 in traffic at 70 mph and your multitasking talents are overmatched.

Re: Texting while driving
  • 11/20/2012 10:16:07 AM

@Beth that's true. It's not just a matter or texting or pressing buttons.  Anything can be a diversion. Some people even argue that people should not eat or drink while driving. 

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