Mobile phones enlisted to help fight disease

KARACHI, Pakistan - Big data, the information flow from digital communications analysis, is being used in the developed world to tackle socio-economic challenges such as the early identification and prevention of diseases. There has been much less progress in using such information sources in the developing world. But that is beginning to change.

Given the ubiquity of mobile phones throughout the world, governments can learn a great deal about their populations by utilizing the huge amounts of data collected by mobile operators, said Kenth Engo-Monsen, senior data scientist at Telenor Research, an arm of the Norwegian mobile operator. Understanding whole populations through mobile phone data is more efficient, cheaper and more accurate than traditional ways of gathering data, such as censuses, he said.

Using big data in this way is also faster than traditional methods of gathering information, which can be important in dealing with traumatic events such as natural disasters and major outbreaks of communicable diseases. First though, governments and digital businesses need to understand how best to gather and analyse the data they hold.

First steps

In a major step forward, Telenor and an international group of academics and health specialists recently published the results of a large-scale study regarding the role of human mobility in outbreaks of dengue fever in Pakistan. In the study, mobility was tracked through the use of mobile phones.

The study -- "Impacts of human mobility on the emergence of dengue epidemics in Pakistan" -- was carried out jointly by Telenor, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Oxford University, the US Center for Disease Control and Pakistan's University of Peshawar. It clearly demonstrated the power of mobile phone data being used to map the spread of epidemic diseases such as dengue fever.

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