Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Another Reason for Using Cell Phone Data to Pinpoint the E.Coli / EHEC Outbreak in Germany

I hate coming back to the subject, but I was a little taken aback by the following from Science Insider Today:
Usually neurological symptoms are seen in only a few percent of HUS cases, but in the current outbreak "about half the patients with HUS are developing neurological symptoms," Christian Gerloff, head of the neurology department at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, told Science Insider today.

Alarm bells started going off when some patients showed problems finding words or giving the date, Gerloff recalls. It quickly became clear that a lot of patients were developing problems reading or doing simple calculations. "Patients were mixing up words and were disoriented. Later they developed muscle twitching and then progressing to epileptic fits," Gerloff says. 

Major neurological symptoms ? how are the health and eating habits questionnaires being answered by the sick with any accuracy ? The cell phone data, i.e. the data owned by the cell phone operators that are used to triangulate your location to find out where you are (this is why they are called mobile phones), are the only data we can still gather from the 20 or so dead people (the most affected people). The cell phone data are the only means of figuring out second hand contamination from first hand contamination. Questionnaires will not help in that case.

I have already sent some e-mails out to some of the folks at RKI and other places but when I am reading  their reports, they seem focused on figuring out the bacterium's details but they don't seem too innovative in getting data that could focus them in the right direction (it is probably outside of their purview). The idea of using normal cell phone data to detect the spreading of this bacterium through direct or indirect exposure to the bacterium will not get traction unless :
  • You, the reader make it known to somebody who can make that happen (including your elected official in the 12 countries currently affected) or know a forum where specialists could refine the idea  (and own it).
  • Journalists start asking question to elected officials at press conferences (and there will be plenty when it comes to pointing fingers on the current disintegration of the fruit and vegetable markets.)

Let's put this in perspective, a potent bacterium with consequential neurological impact has affected more than 2000 people in the heart of the one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world and  after a month, we are still not using the fact that everybody has a cell phone ?


Thomas Arildsen said...

Hi Igor,
This is a very interesting idea, and too good not to be noticed. I have contacted the Danish engineer's newspaper Ingeniøren, which plays a significant role on technical input to the public debate in Denmark, to attempt to make them interested in the idea.

Igor said...


Please let me know if this is going somewhere, i.e. if there is something appearing in the Danish sites/papers about it as I don't read fluent danish. Thanks,



Peter said...

Igor, I can't help playing advocatus diaboli.

On the one hand, I think your idea of using cell phone data is great and somebody should really test it and see if it actually helps in such a situation.

On the other hand, the infrastructure needed is problematic. The highest German court restricted access to such data to investigations in connection with severe felonies (murder, rape etc); the original laws were unconstitutional.

Nevertheless, politicians in Germany constantly ask for more data to be collected -- after all the infrastructure is there and it creates many desires.

What I'm trying to say is that, if it works (which I think it will), there still might be sensible reasons not to follow the idea.

Igor said...


I hope I answered your question: