Network data reveals insight into the spread of disease

Call data gives insight into the spread of epidemics

07 MAY 2013

A new study, based on access to call data of millions of mobile users, has come up with some original conclusions about how disease spreads.

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Birmingham who used an anonymised database containing call records of five million Orange subscribers in Cote d’Ivoire.

The details were shared by Orange as part of its Data for Development Challenge. The university won first prize in the contest.

Access to the database enabled researchers to gain a better insight into how a population moves around, gleaned from where they make calls. This information was used to come up with some new thinking about how to react when an epidemic breaks out.

Current thinking puts an emphasis on restricting people’s movement, putting infected parts of a country into quarantine.

“Essentially with quarantine, the aim is to protect people inside close a closed area. But epidemics spread anyway. A quarantine is not sufficient,” Mirco Musolesi (pictured), who led the team at the University of Birmingham, told Mobile World Live.

While restricting people’s movements is possible, a complete block is not realistic. The study ran a simulation that found it is more effective to spread information about the disease via the mobile network

“If information spreads faster than the epidemic then there is an immunisation of the people,” said Musolesi.

He said the study could be used for better decision-making in future epidemic outbreaks.

The next step for the researchers is to refine their models and then collaborate with other organisations. They have already spoken with Global Pulse, which is part of the UN and specialises in tracking and monitor the impact of global crises. “They were quite interested in our findings,” said Musolesi.

Musolesi’ colleagues from the University of Birmingham were Antonio Lima, Manlio De Domenico and Veljko Pejovic.

Orange itself is interested in the findings. The operator is exploring how they could be applied in the areas of urban planning as well as health.


Richard Handford

Richard is the editor of Mobile World Live’s money channel and a contributor to the daily news service. He is an experienced technology and business journalist who previously worked as a freelancer for many publications over the last decade including...

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