How Big Data will help fight global epidemics

blog image v2Big data and its application for saving lives is maturing. Today, big data is being used to help manage disease outbreaks, enabling humanitarian agencies and NGOs to see trends and correlations, helping them to interpret the data to aid effective decision making.

ITU have developed an innovative new project that uses big data to help aid agencies track the outbreak of disease while safeguarding individual privacy. The project is based on a co-financed partnership between the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the Government of Japan and currently supports Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia by tracking the Ebola outbreak using official data from Mobile Network Operators in the region.

Dr. Cosmas Zavazava, Chief of Project Support and Knowledge Management Department in ITU-D, explains why this is a critical step for fighting the outbreak of disease around the world.

In 2014, the Ebola virus gripped West Africa, killing thousands of people. Principally contained to Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, fear and panic spread around the world as national health systems struggled to cope with its rapid spread. Aid agencies faced severe difficulty in tracking and containing the deadly virus, largely due to the extended incubation period and cultural funeral traditions.

To support relief efforts, ITU launched the Ebola-Info-App on 19 December 2014. Available in English and French, the free-to-download application distributed key information from official sources with the public and health organizations to help facilitate coordination on the ground. The app was deployed following the unanimous approval of a new ITU resolution, ‘Using information and communication technologies to break the chain of health-related emergencies such as Ebola virus transmission’, during the 2014 ITU Plenipotentiary Conference (PP-14). The resolution strengthened ITU’s commitment to harness the power of information and communication technology (ICT) to facilitate timely exchange of information to combat the Ebola epidemic and future global health crises.

Leveraging mobile telephony and big data to save lives

In response, ITU’s Development Bureau (ITU-D) have developed a new method to track the spread of disease using data from national Mobile Network Operators (MNOs). Using call data records – data about a telephone call, text message, or other forms of communication – information can be gathered about the devices location. Collecting this information on a local, regional or national scale, we can begin to map population movements using real data in real time, monitoring travel in and out of affected areas. Aid agencies can then use this information to develop timely and appropriate responses during a disease outbreak, which will potentially help to save millions of lives.

Information from call data records (CDRs) are readily available to MNOs; by gathering this data, ITU is adding another layer of value to data management to save lives through big data analytics, turning a vast amount of information into easily understood trends.

In turning processed and anonymized official data into a dynamic map, aid agencies can see what is happening on the ground. They will be able to quickly and easily understand how a disease is spreading. For example, aid agencies and governments can concentrate information campaigns in high frequency areas or set up effective isolation units if the data shows that a large number of people are using a specific route to access a known disease ‘hot-spot’. This will not only save critical time when responding to a disease outbreak, but will help to use their resources more effectively.

How does the programme work?

As a neutral and impartial international organization, ITU is able to obtain official data from national Mobile Network Operators (MNOs). To protect consumer and individual privacy, all data is anonymized at source by the MNOs using software, and any necessary training, provided for free by ITU. Once this has been completed, the data is then stored, either in a server located at the regulatory authorities, or for countries which may not have this capacity, the data can be stored on a specially dedicated and developed ITU cloud.

This information is then processed and turned into a dynamic map by ITU. Humanitarian actors and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can request access to this anonymized data from ITU and national governments – while the NGO does not need to be an ITU member, they will be screened before any information is provided to them.

This process was successfully piloted in August in Sierra Leone and has since been implemented across the country, as well as in Guinea and Liberia. Moreover, as diseases such as Ebola spread easily, readily permeating national borders, the programme shows cross-border movement between the three countries – in line with the Tampere Convention – to allow for effective monitoring, control and mitigation on a regional level.

Why ITU?

With 193 Member States, over 800 members from industry, civil society and academia, ITU has a unique ability to contribute to a global and profound impact in the fight against global epidemics through ICTs.

The project was enthusiastically supported at the Regional Ministerial Consultative Meeting on Ebola: Leveraging Information and Communication Technology to Save Lives, held in Freetown, Sierra Leone from 26-27 August 2015. A declaration signed by the meeting’s participants stated:

“We, unanimously in the spirit of humanity and solidarity, endorse the outcomes of the Meeting 2 and uphold the 2014 ITU Plenipotentiary Resolution 202 (Busan, 2014) on Using Information and Communication Technologies to break the chain of health-related emergencies such as Ebola virus transmission which focuses on the need to use information and communication technologies (ICTs) to enable the flow of information, in particular in local languages, to be used in health related emergencies so that life-saving information can be shared with local communities.”

Furthermore, ICTs can greatly contribute to disaster risk reduction and management – including in the outbreak of diseases – from early warning and prevention to facilitating on-the-ground communications in the aftermath of a disaster. ITU has been mandated by our Member States to support and facilitate this role through Resolution 202 (Busan, 2014), Resolution 136 (Antalya, 2006), Resolution 36 (Antalya, 2006), WTDC Resolution 34 (Hyderabad, 2010) and multiple Study Group questions. Moreover, effective disaster risk reduction through ICTs, contributes to the successful achievement of the newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Further applications

The project is also applicable to natural disasters, helping aid workers to provide food, medical care and shelter where it is needed most. If call data records are unavailable because telephone networks have been affected or cut off by the disaster, or the disaster impacts an area underserved by mobile networks, information can be relayed to humanitarian agencies and NGOs through satellite communications and Geographical Information Systems (GIS).

Accessing CDR for humanitarian purposes has long been an ambition of the international development community – with these recent innovations we are one step further along the road and heading to a destination where hopefully the integration of CDR into humanitarian and disaster response operations will become the norm.

Dr. Cosmas Zavazava

cosmasDr. Cosmas Zavazava (Ph.D., LLM, MBA, MA, BBA, Dip. Systems Engineering), is Chief of Department, Project Support and Knowledge Management, in the Telecommunication Development Bureau of the ITU. He is a widely quoted author on information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D), least developed countries and small island developing states, and emergency telecommunications and climate change. He has developed and implemented a host of ICT projects across the globe. He has designed and deployed wireless solutions for development, risk disaster reduction, and disaster management including early warning systems for disaster response.

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