Ebola And Big Data: A Call For Help

Phone ebola patientReuters/Andrea ComasJuan Manuel Parra, a doctor who treated Spanish nurse Teresa Romero Ramos who contracted Ebola, talks on a mobile phone by the window of the isolation ward

Mobile-phone records are an invaluable tool to combat Ebola. They should be made available to researchers.

With at least 4,500 people dead, public-health authorities in west Africa and worldwide are struggling to contain Ebola. Borders have been closed, air passengers screened, schools suspended. But a promising tool for epidemiologists lies unused: mobile-phone data.

When people make mobile-phone calls, the network generates a call data record (CDR) containing such information as the phone numbers of the caller and receiver, the time of the call and the tower that handled it–which gives a rough indication of the device’s location. This information provides researchers with an insight into mobility patterns. Indeed phone companies use these data to decide where to build base stations and thus improve their networks, and city planners use them to identify places to extend public transport.

But perhaps the most exciting use of CDRs is in the field of epidemiology. Until recently the standard way to model the spread of a disease relied on extrapolating trends from census data and surveys. CDRs, by contrast, are empirical, immediate and updated in real time. You do not have to guess where people will flee to or move.

Researchers have used them to map malaria outbreaks in Kenya and Namibia and to monitor the public response to government health warnings during Mexico’s swine-flu epidemic in 2009. Models of population movements during a cholera outbreak in Haiti following the earthquake in 2010 used CDRs and provided the best estimates of where aid was most needed.

Ebola phoneReuters/Susan VeraUnidentified patients talk on the phone as they cover their heads and faces while leaning out of their windowsat an isolation ward on the fifth floor at Madrid’s Carlos III Hospital

Doing the same with Ebola would be hard: in west Africa most people do not own a phone. But CDRs are nevertheless better than simulations based on stale, unreliable statistics. If researchers could track population flows from an area where an outbreak had occurred, they could see where it would be likeliest to break out next–and therefore where they should deploy their limited resources.

Yet despite months of talks, and the efforts of the mobile-phone operators’ trade association and several smaller UN agencies, telecom operators have not let researchers use the data (see “Ebola and big data: Waiting on hold”).

One excuse is privacy, which is certainly a legitimate worry, particularly in countries fresh from civil war, or where tribal tensions exist. But the phone data can be anonymised and aggregated in a way that alleviates these concerns. A bigger problem is institutional inertia. Big data is a new field. The people who grasp the benefits of examining mobile-phone usage tend to be young, and lack the clout to free them for research use.

It’s an old problem

This needs to change. Governments should require mobile operators to give approved researchers access to their CDRs. The data will obviously not by themselves prevent this outbreak from turning into a disaster. That will take an extraordinary combination of new drugs, careful prevention and patient care, among other things. But the health workers dealing with Ebola on the ground need all the help they can get.

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