Mobility data from an African mobile phone carrier may help researchers predict the spread of Ebola. Orange Telecom, the West African mobile carrier, gave researchers access to data gained from cell phones in Senegal, which will provide insight into regional population movements and can help predict Ebola’s spread, helping researchers recommend where health care efforts should be focused. So far, the current Ebola outbreak is known to have killed at least 1,350 people, mainly in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone.
Flowminder, the Swedish nonprofit that analyzed the data, called this “an exceptional authorization in support of Ebola control efforts.” “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,” said Linus Bengtsson, a medical doctor and cofounder of Flowminder.
Bengtsson also cautioned that this model of population movements was essentially a “first draft.” The data was gathered in Senegal in 2013 from 150,000 phones before being anonymized and aggregated, so it doesn’t take into account how people may have changed their behaviors or movements in response to the Ebola outbreak. However, “in countries that already have epidemics,” said Bengtsson, “this is the best estimate we can do of what mobility will look like. This can give the sense of the radius people tend to travel around.”