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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Texting while driving
  • 11/19/2012 8:35:30 AM

Big one in the US is data for texting while driving is rusulting in bans all over.

Re: Texting while driving
  • 11/19/2012 3:28:49 PM

@Jeff, on Friday I took a 2-1/2 hour road trip from Chicago to Champaign, IL. There aren't many electronic road signs once you cross out of the city limits, but all that I did see included a "Don't text and drive" message, then cited Illinois traffic death stat related to texting while driving. So, I can see transportation agencies putting this data to use for public awareness. 


Re: Texting while driving
  • 11/19/2012 4:21:36 PM

I wonder how it would work to incorporate an alcohol detector for drivers. A voluntary one though so that they themselves would know if they are too drunk to drive.

Re: Texting while driving
  • 11/20/2012 9:13:16 AM

@Jeff @Beth I recall reading an article on the apps to prevent texting while driving 

 There are several apps that will cut off the keyboard when the GPS shows the phone moving over a certain speed.  However, this requires parents to know about, download and install, and manage these applications – usually for their children who are smarter and more adept at turning these features off than they are.

It also mentions that the laws against it are not at all consistent across the nation:

 there are only 10 states with laws on the books that prohibit all cell phone usage while driving, but there are 11 states with no restrictions on distracted driving.  The Governors Highway Safety Association is a great state-by-state resource on the current laws for cell phone usage, texting and even usage laws for school bus drivers (yes, in some states it is legal for school bus drivers to text).  Additionally, it provides links of programs to address "distracted driving" laws in each state, including resources for you to support these initiatives.

As the writer took the problem to be greatest among teens, the solution the article proposed was as follows:

a built-in, parental-locked, no-texting feature on the phone.  Upon setup, parents lock the phone when it is traveling over a certain speed – the phone can even put an "I'm driving" auto-reply to all texts coming in. For our teens, who is typically paying for the phone? Parents.  Parents would flock to purchase a safe phone for their kids – even paying extra for these features.

Re: Texting while driving
  • 11/20/2012 9:15:36 AM

@kicheko Such devices do exist. While those who have been convicted of DWI sometimes must have one built into their cars to prevent it from starting if they don't pass, people can test for themselves, too.  A variety of models are offered for sale here.

Re: Texting while driving
  • 11/20/2012 9:44:40 AM

Ariella, I love this idea -- and think it could prove highly valuable especially but not exclusively for teens. I'd love to have an automated "I'm driving" message go out when I receive texts on my smartphone while driving! I'll also suggest that texting isn't the only culprit. Many drivers, teens and otherwise, use their smartphones for music in the car. Fiddling with shuffle lists and skipping songs could be just as problematic as texting.

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. 

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
  • 11/24/2012 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. 

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.

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