The data helps disease researchers and public health officials by giving them a better idea of population movements. When such data is pieced together with information on malaria diagnoses, topography and climate, experts can pinpoint malaria hotspots and act accordingly.
"Understanding the movement of people is crucial in eliminating malaria," explained geographer and data scientist Dr. Andy Tatem.
Tatem and his colleagues point out the difficulty in combating disease among a highly mobile population -- like the people of Namibia. Eradicate one hotspot, they say, and a group of people moving to another part of the country quickly transport the parasite to a new and vulnerable region. Malaria spreads.
"If we are to eliminate this disease, we need to deploy the right measures in the right place," Tatem said. "But figures on human movement patterns in endemic regions are hard to come by and often restricted to local travel surveys and census-based migration data."
The proliferation of mobile phones helps solve this problem, as Tatem and his co-authors show in their new study, published this week in the Malaria Journal.
The researchers think their study can serve as a model for other countries and other diseases.
"The use of mobile phone data is one example of how new technologies are overcoming past problems of quantifying," Tatem added, "and gaining a better understanding of human movement patterns in relation to disease control."