Routinely collected mobile phone-location data could be used to alert health official about crowded areas where novel coronavirus could spread rapidly, which they could then use to disperse people in order to lower the risk, according to researchers at Colorado State University.
Mobile phones maintain connections as their users move around by continually handing off from one cell tower to another. Analyzing logs of these handoffs is a way to gauge how many people are in an area, the researchers say, and that information could flag potential virus-spreading hotspots. “Crowded regions with actively moving people are susceptible to spreading the disease”, the team says in an abstract of its paper in IEEE Open Journal of Engineering in Medicine and Biology.
Edwin Chong, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and interim department head at the school in an article on the university’s website that his findings could help risk managers with planning and mitigation.
The data that would be used doesn’t identify individuals who own the phones, which should alleviate privacy concerns, he says. “All we have to do is perform the measurements using anonymous data that is already being collected for other reasons. We are not tracking individuals”, he says
Mobile applications that have been developed to trace near encounters between individuals are different. They necessarily gather personal information so health officials can determine who might have come in proximity with an infected person. The goal is to alert those who have had such encounters so they can quarantine themselves for 14 days to prevent them from potentially spreading the virus further. But that is quite different from the information gathered by cell-tower engineering logs.
As mobile phones move from one cell to another, a process called handover and reselection keeps the phones constantly connected to the network. The logs of this activity reveal the volume of this activity and tracks the status of phones such as non-active standby, engaged in active calls or whether it’s making data connections.
The size of mobile cells varies with those in densely populated areas being smaller and therefore able to deliver more granular data about where people are closer together. Indeed, future 5G deployments may have cell antennas in every municipal streetlight, making it possible to make very specific density estimates.