How mobile big data can help eradicate one of the biggest killers of our time

Heads of state will gather in New York on 26 September this year at the UN General Assembly’s first-ever high-level meeting on how to accelerate efforts to eradicate tuberculosis (TB). The ability to use the ‘big data’ from mobile networks to identify vulnerable populations has the potential to be part of the solution, says Mats Granryd, Director General of the GSMA.

Tuberculous is the leading infectious cause of death worldwide, claiming more lives than even HIV/AIDS. Last year, 10 million people fell ill with TB – including an estimated 1 million children – with 1.6 million dying from the disease[1]. Although TB occurs in every part of the world, last year more than two-thirds of new cases occurred in just eight countries: Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Nigeria and South Africa.

But TB is also a preventable and treatable disease – and one that can be tackled if the public and private sectors can work alongside civil society, development agencies on practical solutions. One of aims of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is to end the TB epidemic by 2030, a target that forms part of SDG 3: Good Health and Well-Being. In India, the country that currently shoulders the highest burden of TB, the government has committed to an even more ambitious target to end TB by 2025.

Meeting these targets will require innovative strategies and technologies – which is where mobile big data comes in.

As part of the mobile industry’s commitment to the SDGs, the GSMA launched the ‘Big Data for Social Good’ (BD4SG) initiative last year. BD4SG has enabled mobile operators to jointly establish a common approach to analysing the anonymised data captured on their networks to help public agencies and NGOs tackle some of the biggest crises of our time, including addressing TB in India.

Analysing Population Movements to Identify TB hotspots

In collaboration with Bharti Airtel, India’s leading mobile operator, and Be He@lthy, Be Mobile (a joint initiative between the WHO and the ITU), the BD4SG programme developed a proof of concept (PoC) in the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, using mobile network data to help pinpoint geographical locations at risk of increasing TB incidence. These two states have a combined population of nearly 270 million, from which a sample size of around 35 million people was used.

As TB is spread through prolonged or recurring contact with infected people, the project used anonymised, aggregated mobile network data from Airtel to show regular population movements, such as commuting to work, going to school and university, and other regular daily journeys. This was complemented with publicly available data from the health authorities on the number of new TB cases per clinic. The study was therefore able to identify areas reporting low numbers of TB cases, but that are strongly connected to TB hotspots by regular movements of people. The scale, granularity and immediacy of mobile data meant that the findings are precise and up-to-date.

“Statistical analysis showed that regular population movement is a stronger indicator of TB incidence than location proximity between high and low TB regions,” explains Harmeen Mehta, Global CIO at Bharti Airtel. “Low TB areas from which people regularly travel to high TB areas are therefore at particular risk of increasing TB levels or may already be under-reporting TB cases.”

The research identified a number of specific TB ‘hotspots’, enabling health authorities to accurately deploy interventions such as vaccination programmes, awareness campaigns and the deployment of mobile clinics in these areas.

“Through our partnership of Be He@lthy, Be Mobile with GSMA, we will use mobility data and big data analytics to help public health organisations more effectively plan targeted health interventions,” commented Dr. Vinayak Prasad of the WHO.

Collaboration Key to Success

This project highlighted how the mobile industry can provide valuable insights to help bring infectious diseases such as TB to an end. For the GSMA, the key success factor in this project was the close collaboration between the healthcare and telecoms partners to ensure the approach was both relevant and actionable.

During the UN General Assembly meeting in New York this week, leaders will come together at the first-ever high-level meeting on tuberculosis. This will be an opportunity to highlight the mobile industry’s commitment to accelerating the end of tuberculosis in India and elsewhere using mobile data to target health interventions – and another example of the industry working in partnership with global agencies and partners to provide real-world solutions to many of the world’s most pressing health, humanitarian and environmental problems.

Read the Airtel TB case study in full here