Southampton University researchers have used mobile phone data to understand spreading of malaria in African countries.
The study used anonymised mobile records to measure population movements in Namibia over a one-year period (2010-11). By combining this data with information about diagnosed cases of malaria, topography and climate, the researchers have been able to identify geographical 'hotspots' of the disease and design targeted plans for its elimination.
"Understanding the movement of people is crucial in eliminating malaria. Attempts to clear the disease from an area can be ruined by highly mobile populations quickly reintroducing the parasite which causes malaria,” said Southampton University researcher Andy Tatem.
"If we are to eliminate this disease, we need to deploy the right measures in the right place, but figures on human movement patterns in endemic regions are hard to come by and often restricted to local travel surveys and census-based migration data.
Anonymised call data records enable creating samples of unprecedented sizes. Using the records, researchers have data about millions of people and their movements at their fingertips and could combine them with maps of malaria distribution to analyse from where the disease is spreading. In the case of the study published recently in the Journal of Malaria, 12 months of call data about 1.19 million unique subscribers was analysed to determine population movements between rural and urban areas.
"Our study demonstrates that the rapid global proliferation of mobile phones now provides us with an opportunity to study the movement of people, using sample sizes running in to millions,” Tatem said.
The results of the study help Namibian authorities improve their targeting of malaria interventions to communities most at risk. Specifically they have helped with the targeting of insecticide-treated bed net distributions in the Omusati, Kavango and Zambezi regions in 2013, and will continue to help Namibia’s National Vector-borne Diseases Control Programme (NVDCP) to prepare a large-scale net distribution in 2014 and deployment of community health workers.
"The use of mobile phone data is one example of how new technologies are overcoming past problems of quantifying and gaining a better understanding of human movement patterns in relation to disease control," Tatem concluded.