Want to track disease spread and the effectivness of intervention strategies? Look to cellphone data

Methods of tracking infectious disease have changed drastically over the years. Using big data from mobile phones for epidemiological study has generated a good deal of buzz because of the degree of detail it offers on how a population moves geographically.

A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at how researchers used mobile phone data to track a 2005 outbreak of cholera in Senegal. This is the first research to put the mobile data tracking hype to the test, according to the authors.

"A lot of local conditions play into whether a minor cholera outbreak will evolve into a major epidemic," Flavio Finger, lead study author, said in a statement. "One goal of our research was to develop ways to estimate how the disease spread across populations, both in space and in time," he says. "Knowing how many cases you are likely to have and where they are likely to be are two important pieces of information that can help dispatch healthcare workers to the right places."

Rather than reconstructing population movements from the time of outbreak using patient data, the researchers used mobile data, which was more accurate and eliminated a good deal of uncertainty. A simulation of disease spread based on the mobile phone data compared to the actual spread correctly matched the peaks of reported cases with the correct regions, and also replicated spikes in specific areas.

"We have also used our simulation to test different intervention strategies," Mr. Finger said. "You can use antibiotics or vaccines, or invest in improving sanitary standards. All of these approaches have different impacts and cost different amounts of money and resources. Our simulation gives us a tool to evaluate and compare their efficacy."

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