WASHINGTON, Aug. 20 (UPI) -- Researchers may have found an accurate way to track the seasonal spread of diseases by studying people's travel patterns using cellphone data, according to a new study.
The method was tested by researchers who tracked rubella in Kenya by using the anonymous locations of daily cellphone use and comparing that data to historical paths of rubella spreading through the country.
"One of the unique opportunities of mobile phone data is the ability to understand how travel patterns change over time," said C. Jessica Metcalf, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and public affairs at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, in a press release. "And rubella is a well-known seasonal disease that has been hypothesized to be driven by human population dynamics, making it a good system for us to test."
Researchers used the locations of cell towers and timing of calls and messages to roughly determine daily phone users. This information for more than 12 billion cellular interactions was compared with datasets about seasonal rubella spikes in the country. Researchers were able to predict, for instance, that spikes happen at the start of school or after holiday breaks.
In addition eventually using the method of data analysis to study flu and other epidemics, the researchers plan to next apply it to measles, malaria and cholera.
"Our analysis shows that mobile phone data may be used to capture seasonal human movement patterns that are relevant for understanding childhood infectious diseases," Metcalf said. "In particular, phone data can describe within-country movement patterns on a large scale, which could be especially helpful for localized treatment."