How mobile phone traces can help the analysis of spread of infectious diseases: the Zika case in Colombia

Colombia has been the second country (following Brazil) to have experienced a large-scale Zika outbreak in Latin America, with over 100 thousand cases reported between October 2015 and July 2016. A study by the Computational Epidemiology Lab at the ISI Foundation, in collaboration with UN Global Pulse in New York and Telefonica Resarch in Madrid, is currently investigating the human mobility patterns relevant to the epidemic spread of Zika in that country, mainly focusing on the potential benefits of harnessing mobile phone data as a proxy for human movements.

«Today, more and more sources of data and innovative techniques are used to detect people's physical movements over time», writes ISI Foundation Researcher and UN Global Pulse Fellow Daniela Perrotta in a post published in UN Global Pulse website , and mirrored in Telefonica's LUCA website. «Like the digital traces generated by human activities on the Internet (e.g. Twitter, Flickr, Foursquare) or the footprints left by mobile phone users' activity».

In the study, more than two billion encrypted and anonymized calls, made by around seven million mobile phone users in Colombia, have been used to identify population movements across the country. To assess their value, the data have been evaluated against more traditional methods, like census data, gravity model and radiation model. Next step will be to assess the predictive power of each mobility network in the application to the study of Zika. Overall, this approach could allow to finally identify the potential impact of using the mobility derived from mobile phones to inform epidemic models and help public health authorities in planning timely interventions.

“Can Mobile Phone Traces Help Shed Light on the Spread of Zika in Colombia?”, Daniela Perrotta, United National Global Pulse, 24th April 2018, link: