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Harvard epidemiologist Caroline Buckee has figured out a way to use a cell phone tower in Kericho, Kenya to help in the fight against malaria. She was able to interpret data showing that individuals who are making phone calls or sending text messages in Kericho were more likely to travel to a different region in Kenya, which is a known hotspot for Malaria.

This data has fed into a new set of predictive models. These models have shown the most effective places to attack the malaria parasite, showing researchers sources and hotspots. This data mining will help to organize a currently unorganized system of record keeping. The models may also help design new measures that are likely to include campaigns to send text messages to people warning them to use bed netting, as well as to help officials choose where to focus their control efforts.

Eliminating malaria is just one of the potential benefits of this technology. It can also build tools that health-care and government workers can use to detect and monitor epidemics, disasters, and optimize transportation systems. Data mining could prove particularly useful in poorer countries where there is currently little to no actual model in place.

This type of phone tracking could also be useful for other trends and figures such as employment trends, poverty, transportation and economic activity within a given region. Countries without a functioning census could benefit quite a bit from this type of technology. Cell phones have the capability to provide researchers with all of the infrastructure that is already built in the developed world.

Careful precautions are being taken to ensure individual’s privacy is not infringed upon. However, this has not stopped many corporations from expressing concerns about releasing their customer’s data to the wrong hands.

Data-mining is handing a road map to a populations movements and trends pinpointing them in given locations. Researchers, like Buckee are taking every step possible to show people the importance of data-mining. Buckee has explained that with phone data, the possibility to target drug resistant strains of the malaria parasite becomes a possibility. This could help eliminate the proliferation of the disease.

“This is the future of epidemiology,” Buckee says. “If we are to eradicate malaria, this is how we will do it.”

– Caitlin Zusy
Source: Technology Review
Photo:NPR