How phone calls, tweets could help tackle Ebola

A tweet or phone call could be the answer to containing the spread of the deadly Ebola virus, according to mobile researchers .

Groupe Speciale Mobile Association (GSMA), the body that represents mobile operators around the world, is in discussions with companies in Africa to use telecoms data to track the movement of people and in theory, understand the progression of Ebola. So far the disease has claimed the lives of 4,960 people, including one in the U.S.

How would it work?

The idea would be use call records from the millions of customers across affected areas and encrypt and anonymize the data. Researchers would then be able to see whether there was significant movement into or out of a highly infected area. This would allow authorities to prepare effective counter responses.

Health workers don protective equipment at the Island Clinic in Monrovia, Liberia.
Christopher Black | WHO | Reuters
Health workers don protective equipment at the Island Clinic in Monrovia, Liberia.

The collection of the data would be made possible by the high level of mobile phone penetration in Africa -- currently at 778 million mobile subscriptions in 2013 and set to grow to 1.2 billion by the end of 2018, according to Informa.

"If you can see that people are moving from an area which is a focus of an infection to another area, then this information could be valuable because it could help governments and public health organisation anticipated where the diseases will be spreading," Nuria Oliver, scientific director at Telefónica, told CNBC by phone.

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Oliver is advising the GSMA on how to use "big data" to tackle Ebola after Telefónica did similar research to track the H1N1 "swine flu" virus in 2009. By studying call detail records (CDRs) from one million customers in Mexico, researchers were then able to see whether the closing of certain parts of the country had successfully stopped the disease's spread.

Using social media

But it is not only phone data that can be used. Experts said with the rise of social media, platforms like Twitter can give an indication about the spread of a disease.

"Social media is another way to pick up information that can add to your pool of data," Simon Dennis, director of central government at analytics firm SAS U.K. and Ireland, which works in the healthcare sector.

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"In the Sars epidemic in Hong Kong and China, you could look at people just mentioning things on Twitter such as dead birds and analyze whether that is relevant and an early indicator about the infection."

Privacy concerns

But the use of Big Data is not without its challenges with privacy being the main concern. The use of the large scale data has been met with backlash in many industries particularly since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed information about the U.S. and U.K. governments' mass surveillance techniques.

GSMA told CNBC that this is the main stumbling block it faces in using Big Data to tackle Ebola.

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"Both directly and through its members, the GSMA continues to work to address government concerns about using even anonymized data from CDRs and disseminating it to trusted researchers for their use in supporting the Ebola response," Michael O'Hara, GSMA's chief marketing officer, told said by email.

"Individuals' privacy is at the very core of this issue and is something that must be balanced with the need for data."