Early Detection of Disease Outbreaks using Cellular Location Data
In a presciently timed set of papers published in November 2019, researchers from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (“EPFL”) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (“MIT”) conclude that: “having access to mobile phone location data can prove crucial in understanding disease transmission dynamics — and, ultimately, in stopping an outbreak from evolving into an epidemic. Yet, according to the researchers, this kind of information is hard to come by. They recommend bringing in new legislation to fill a legal void and enable scientists, NGOs and political decision-makers to access people’s phone location data for public health purposes”.
Indeed, as the Coronavirus epidemic began governments scrambled to begin applying cellular location tracking based services to help enforce quarantines and direct enforcement efforts; however, the key application described in the researchers’ papers was barely employed. The researchers discuss the use of mobility data analysis to identify areas where changes in mobility may indicate outbreaks. While countries like the US have begun analysing mobility data to try and predict outbreaks, this is only a partial application mostly concerned with identifying quarantine enforcement applications.
The use of mobility data is the anonymized study of large-scale cellular location data for unusual patterns that might indicate a localized outbreak such as a sudden and unusual reduction in mobility (indicating people are staying home) or uptick in visits to community health centres in a specific area. The use of such techniques allows for better coordination of national health resources and early identification of new disease outbreaks.
The application of mobility analysis for disease outbreak identification has been actively discussed as far back as 2008 (for a useful review, see this research white paper published by Orange), however, its adoption is still lagging (for a review of the use of data in outbreak analytics, see this Royal Society paper) the use of location data for things like quarantine enforcement. This seems odd, seeing as mobility analysis presents far less legal complications as it does not infringe on personal liberties to a similar degree.
We suspect that as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is felt around the world and countries gear up to deal with this and future pandemics, mobility analysis applications will become a standard tool in the arsenal of national health ministries around the world. Thankfully, Septier is ready to help you implement such cutting-edge tools now.
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