Following malaria through Kenya using cell phones

Ars Technica » Scientific Method 2012-10-23

Aurich Lawson

Mosquitoes can fly just a few miles at a time, limiting their ability to spread insect-borne diseases such as malaria. Humans are much better long-distance disease transmitters; through our movements, we help malaria get much farther, and move faster than parasite-ridden insects could. However, because human movement can be difficult to quantify, especially in third-world countries where malaria is prevalent, few studies have been able to understand how travelers alter the movements of malaria over large spatial scales.

But the recent proliferation of mobile phones in African countries offers a creative way to track human travel and inform our understanding of malaria dispersal. In this week’s issue of Science, a group of researchers use cell phone records to help map out networks of malaria transmission in Kenya, identifying hotspots where the disease is likely to be contracted and transmitted.

The study used records from nearly 15 million mobile phone users in Kenya, tracking them for one year; the cell phone company provided coded ID numbers to identify each user, as well as the location, time, and date of each call or text. The researchers determined where each person spent most of their time based on the location of the majority of their call and text records. After assigning individuals' home bases, the researchers could study each trip that each person took within Kenya.

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