Interesting study by Swedish researchers: Improved Response to Disasters and Outbreaks by Tracking Population Movements with Mobile Phone Network Data

Today on the Swedish national radio, this paper on “Improved Response to Disasters and Outbreaks by Tracking Population Movements with Mobile Phone Network Data” was one of the top headlines in the news. The paper targets an important topic and also shows how innovative use of digital footprints in the mobile phone networks could be used in disaster relief.

A popular version of the main ideas is presented in Fast Company.

The paper is written by:
Linus Bengtsson Xin Lu, Anna Thorson, Johan von Schreeb at the department of Public Health Sciences, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden, and Richard Garfield at Schools of Nursing and Public Health, Columbia University, United States of America.

Background: Population movements following disasters can cause important increases in morbidity and mortality. Without knowledge of the locations of affected people, relief assistance is compromised. No rapid and accurate method exists to track population movements after disasters. We used position data of subscriber identity module (SIM) cards from the largest mobile phone company in Haiti (Digicel) to estimate the magnitude and trends of population movements following the Haiti 2010 earthquake and cholera outbreak.

Methods and Findings: Geographic positions of SIM cards were determined by the location of the mobile phone tower through which each SIM card connects when calling. We followed daily positions of SIM cards 42 days before the earthquake and 158 days after. To exclude inactivated SIM cards, we included only the 1.9 million SIM cards that made at least one call both pre-earthquake and during the last month of study. In Port-au-Prince there were 3.2 persons per included SIM card. We used this ratio to extrapolate from the number of moving SIM cards to the number of moving persons. Cholera outbreak analyses covered 8 days and tracked 138,560 SIM cards. An estimated 630,000 persons (197,484 Digicel SIM cards), present in Port-au-Prince on the day of the earthquake, had left 19 days post-earthquake. Estimated net outflow of people (outflow minus inflow) corresponded to 20% of the Port-au-Prince pre-earthquake population. Geographic distribution of population movements from Port-au-Prince corresponded well with results from a large retrospective, population-based UN survey. To demonstrate feasibility of rapid estimates and to identify areas at potentially increased risk of outbreaks, we produced reports on SIM card movements from a cholera outbreak area at its immediate onset and within 12 hours of receiving data.

Conclusions: Results suggest that estimates of population movements during disasters and outbreaks can be delivered rapidly and with potentially high validity in areas with high mobile phone use.

Citation: Bengtsson L, Lu X, Thorson A, Garfield R, von Schreeb J (2011) Improved Response to Disasters and Outbreaks by Tracking Population Movements with Mobile Phone Network Data: A Post-Earthquake Geospatial Study in Haiti. PLoS Med 8(8): e1001083. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001083

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