CDC Tracks Cell Phone Location Data To Halt Ebola

Aliya Sternstein | | October 9, 2014

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is tracking the approximate locations of cell phone users in West Africa who dial emergency call centers in an effort to predict the onset and spread of Ebola outbreaks. “The data is just the number of calls by cell tower, but from that you can get a rough idea of the area that the calls are coming in from, and then derive census, neighborhood data from that,” CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund told Nextgov on Thursday.  

It’s one of the high-tech approaches the U.S. government is piloting to stop the spread of the disease.  There is deep cell phone penetration in many parts of West Africa,  where land lines sometimes are nonexistent.  By collecting tower data from telecommunications providers, CDC officials can visualize the beginnings of an outbreak, explained Este Geraghty, chief medical officer at software mapping provider Esri. She’s working with the agency on response efforts.  

In Liberia, special call centers and a “4455” hotline number were set up for residents to ask Ebola-related questions and report cases.  The Liberia Ministry of Health and telecom companies, with CDC support, "looked at the cell tower locations and tower traffic -- in other words, which tower the call came in through," Geraghty said.  "It isn’t an exact location of the population with questions, but it does give them an idea of which part of the community questions are coming from -- and presumably populations of need that may not be identified through formal case investigations," she said...