Behaviour analysis app could help to limit spread of disease

A mobile phone app developed by Cambridge University researchers to track how people behave during an epidemic could be used to limit the spread of disease.

Localised epidemics and global pandemics periodically pose a significant national and global threat. When this happens, it becomes vital for public health and government authorities to track how far and how fast the disease is spreading.

However, to minimise the health, social and economic impact as much as possible, it is also important to know how people are likely to change their behaviour during the course of an epidemic.

According to Jon Crowcroft, the Marconi professor of communications systems in the Computer Laboratory at Cambridge University, understanding how people behave might help authorities to devise strategies to reduce the scale or length of the crisis and to tailor healthcare messages effectively.

The Cambridge FluPhone app in the mobile phone works by monitoring influenza-like symptoms by prompting questions for the mobile phone owner. It also captures physical proximity information between individuals by recording other devices nearby via Bluetooth communication.

In a pilot study of the app, volunteers were asked to download the application to their mobile phones. Data collected over a few months — which happened to coincide with an outbreak of swine flu — demonstrated the potential of using mobile phones to measure the social activity of the population in real time, providing data that would be otherwise unavailable.

Crowcroft explained: ‘In this particular outbreak, it’s now known that some people carried the disease, yet were asymptomatic. Our system is capable of identifying these asymptomatic “superspreaders” because they show up by virtue of the contacts who develop the disease.’

To develop the model further, a virtual disease epidemic application has been prototyped in which fake ‘pathogens’ can be transmitted via Bluetooth radio communication when two individuals are in proximity range.

‘This has proved to be a fantastic tool — you can run a “what-if” experiment on the live population based on their contacts, simply by randomly choosing some of the mobile phones to be infectious,’ said Crowcroft. ‘We can then model the effect of behaviour on disease spread.’

FluPhone is part of a wider project involving seven academic institutions and government agencies led by Liverpool University and funded by the Economic and Social Sciences Research Council.

The Cambridge team is planning a larger project using the FluPhone technology together with one of the project partners, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, to work in several African countries at village population level in Malawi, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Gambia, Ethiopia and Ghana.