Smartphone data can predict disease spread

Smartphone data can predict disease spread

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Cellular data as a basis for predicting the spread of diseases

Infectious diseases, which can be transmitted from person to person, can spread extremely quickly and epidemics arise that pose a serious threat to public health. According to a recent study, however, the spread of diseases can be predicted relatively reliably using smartphone data, which would make it much easier to contain the infections.

Using cellular data to predict outbreaks is not a completely new idea. Contrary to other models, which are essentially based on calculations and estimates, concrete data are available here: Researchers from the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) have shown in a recent study how the smartphone -Data can help predict disease outbreaks. Their results were published in the scientific reports.

Dengue outbreaks investigated in Singapore

Based on the outbreaks of dengue in 2013 and 2014 in Singapore, the research team investigated various methods for predicting the spread of this vector-borne infectious disease (transmissible through humans and other vectors such as mosquitoes).

Diffusion is often difficult to predict

"Urbanization, mobility, globalization and climate change could be factors for the spread of vector-borne diseases, also here in Europe," explains lead author Emanuele Massaro from EPFL. An exact prediction of the dispersion pattern is therefore difficult. The extent to which the spread can still be forecast using the different methods was examined in the current study.

Different forecast models tested

Using digital simulations, the researchers analyzed how an outbreak developed and compared this with the actual reported cases from 2013 and 2014 in Singapore. They also tested four different forecasting models, each using different data sets: cell phone location data, census data, random mobility, and theoretical assumptions.

Cellular data used anonymously

"In each model, citizens were assigned two places - home and work - as places that they visit daily and where an infection could potentially occur," reports the research team. A mobile operator has made the mobile data available anonymously. "We wanted to find out when the location data of the people on the cell phone could be useful"; emphasize the researchers.

Spatial distribution correctly predicted

The researchers reported that the spatial distribution of the dengue cases in Singapore could be effectively predicted using the census model as well as the cell phone data, without violating people's privacy. In an emergency, however, it is crucial to have the most accurate information possible. "That's why the location data of the phone is better than the annual census data," said the lead author.

Access to cellular data problematic

The research team concludes that access to cellular location data can be critical to understanding the dynamics of disease transmission - and could ultimately help prevent an outbreak from becoming an epidemic. However, the legal framework is problematic since the mobile data is owned by private companies.

Privacy versus health

"We need to think seriously about changing the law on access to this type of information - not only for scientific research, but also for prevention and public health reasons," the researchers conclude. A discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of using cellular data to model outbreaks and other possible applications is urgently needed. (fp)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Dipl. Geogr. Fabian Peters


  • Massaro, E .; Kondor, D .; Ratti, C .: Assessing the interplay between human mobility and mosquito borne diseases in urban environments; in: Scientific Reports (published November 15, 2019),
  • École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL): During epidemics, access to GPS data from smartphones can be crucial (published November 15, 2019),

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