Mobile phone location data could help in fight against Malaria

Siemens SL55 mobile phone

Siemens SL55 mobile phone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of the world’s 6 billion phones it is estimated that 5 billion are in developing countries. From a Big Data perspective, this offers a fantastic opportunity, particularly on the African continent. Although global shipments of smartphones have recently overtaken those of feature phones, the majority of phones in the developing world are cheap, simple phones that are used for calls and text messaging. Cheap phones can be used to track people’s movements and mobile payments, such as the M-PESA system used in Kenya and Tanzania, can also be used to analyse employment trends and give governments an insight into poverty, transportation and economic activity. The use of the mobile phone in these 2 crucial areas is potentially very powerful.

Big data from cheap phones in Africa could really help in the fight against diseases like malaria. By analysing data from mobile phones, location based data could help map people’s movements and help understand the spread of diseases. Africa has been hampered by a lack of data-gathering infrastructure, so mobile phone data can open up up a realm of possibilities but there needs to be pressure on the operators to allow access.

Lake Victoria has long been known as a hotspot and source of malaria, but what hasn’t been known is detailed information about how and when people travel to and from the area. Standard efforts at tracking people have been sketchy at best as information at border controls is poor. The use of location based data to monitor the movement of people could help indicate high risk areas and high risk times to travel. In addition, text messaging could then be used to alert people of dangerous areas and to ensure people are advised to use a bed net. In Sierra Leone, the launch of a location-based SMS system will reach up to 36,000 people an hour, with warnings of impending fires, floods or outbreaks of disease. The system is called the Trilogy Emergency Relief Application (TERA) and will allow the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society, with support from the British and Icelandic Red Cross, to reach people in need in a matter of minutes.

Last year, Orange released mobile phone data from the Ivory Coast which gave information on five months worth of calls made by 5m people. The data will be presented at MIT under the name Data for Development, part of a larger conference on data-mining projects throuout the world. A part of the data will chart travel between a traditional North South ethnic divide and may help avoid conflict in the future. There is a huge amount of excitement about this upcoming release of data and all of the possibilities it may be bring in the Ivory Coast and beyond.

We need to protect consumer privacy but there also needs to be continued pressure on phone operators to release anonymous location based user data . Mobile data may be the future of epidemiology and it could be how malaria is eradicated.

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