Cell-Phone Data Might Help Predict Ebola’s Spread

David Talbot at MIT Technology Review: “A West African mobile carrier has given researchers access to data gleaned from cell phones in Senegal, providing a window into regional population movements that could help predict the spread of Ebola. The current outbreak is so far known to have killed at least 1,350 people, mainly in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone.
The model created using the data is not meant to lead to travel restrictions, but rather to offer clues about where to focus preventive measures and health care. Indeed, efforts to restrict people’s movements, such as Senegal’s decision to close its border with Guinea this week, remain extremely controversial.
Orange Telecom made “an exceptional authorization in support of Ebola control efforts,” according to Flowminder, the Swedish nonprofit that analyzed the data. “If there are outbreaks in other countries, this might tell what places connected to the outbreak location might be at increased risk of new outbreaks,” says Linus Bengtsson, a medical doctor and cofounder of Flowminder, which builds models of population movements using cell-phone data and other sources.
The data from Senegal was gathered in 2013 from 150,000 phones before being anonymized and aggregated. This information had already been given to a number of researchers as part of a data analysis challenge planned for 2015, and the carrier chose to authorize its release to Flowminder as well to help meet the Ebola crisis.
The new model helped Flowminder build a picture of the overall travel patterns of people across West Africa. In addition to using data from Senegal, researchers used an earlier data set from Ivory Coast, which Orange had released two years ago as part of a similar conference (see “Released: A Trove of Data-Mining Research from Phones” and “African Bus Routes Redrawn Using Cell-Phone Data”). The model also includes data about population movements from more conventional sources, including surveys.
Separately, Flowminder has produced an animation of the epidemic’s spread since March, based on records of when and where people died of the disease….”