Read an article today in MIT Technical Review website (Big data from cheap phones) that shows how cheap phones, call detail records (CDRs) and other phone logs can be used to help fight disease and help understand disaster impacts.
Cheap phones generate big data
In one example, researchers took cell phone data from Kenya and used it to plot people movements throughout the country. What they were looking for is people who frequented malaria disease hot spots so that they could try to intervene in the transmission of this disease. Researchers discovered one region (cell tower) that had many people that were frequenting a particular bad location for malaria. It turned out the region they identified had a large plantation with many migrant workers. These workers moved around a lot. In order to reduce the transmission of the disease public health authorities could target this region to use more bed nets or try to reduce infestation at source of the disease. In either case, people mobility was easier to see with cell phone data than actually putting people on the ground and counting where people go or come from.
In another example, researchers took cell phone data from Haiti before and after the earthquake and were able to calculate how many people were in the region hardest hit by the earthquake. They were also able to identify how many people left the region and where the went to. As a follow on to this, researchers were able to in real time show how many people had fled the cholera epidemic.
Gaining access to cheap phone data
Most of this call detail record data is limited to specific researchers for very specialized activities requested by the host countries. But recently Orange released 2.5 billion cell phone call and text data records for five million customers they have in Ivory Coast that occurred during five months time. They released the data to the public under some specific restrictions in order to see what data scientists could do with it. The papers detailing their activities will be published at a MIT Data for Development conference.
Big data’s contribution to a better world is just beginning but from what we see here there’s real value in data that already exists, if only the data were made more widely available.