In many parts of the world, a bite from a malaria-infected mosquito could still kill you–despite the fact that the disease is both preventable and easily cured if it’s caught in the early stages. One of the biggest problems, experts say, is a lack of data, and that’s a problem that mobile phones might be able to solve.
“Malaria thrives on misinformation,” says Martin Edlund, CEO of Malaria No More, an organization that plans to mine data from millions of mobile phones to help end the disease. “It’s one of the main reasons the disease continues to kill a child almost every minute.”
Misinformation comes in several forms. Since symptoms of the flu, pneumonia, or even Ebola look a lot like malaria, people often assume they have malaria when they actually don’t. When patients do have the disease, there’s a chance they’ll unknowingly take a counterfeit drug that won’t work. And then there’s the problem of the bigger picture: Health officials struggle to track cases in a way that can help them plan when and where drugs will be needed.
Mobile phones can help with at least a couple of these challenges. A Nigerian startup called Sproxil has a service that lets patients check whether a drug is real by sending a free text message with a code from the pill bottle. And now Malaria No More plans to start combing through the data from Sproxil’s verifications to better understand the disease.
“What intrigued us is the opportunity to use this massive new data source to get fresh insights,” Edlund says. “If you know where and when new malaria cases are happening in real time, it will significantly improve our understanding of the disease and help us make better decisions about how to combat it—decisions that could save thousands of lives and hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Simple facts from the text messages, like location, will be combined with other data that researchers already have. “The real power will come from marrying the drug authentication data with other available data sets: malaria burden, bed net coverage, rainfall patterns, temperature index, etc.,” says Edlund. “Only by looking at the problem in all its dimensions will we be able to solve it.”
There are still big challenges ahead; since people often take anti-malarial drugs even when they don’t actually have malaria, the team will be working carefully with epidemiologists and data scientists to figure out exactly how much accurate information can be gleaned from a text message.
But the organization, which just received a $600,000 grant from Google.org for the project, is optimistic that malaria might eventually be the first disease to be eradicated by mobile phones.
“We think it has the potential to revolutionize our understanding of and response to malaria,” Edlund says. “But we are in the early stages, and in order for it to work, we have to solve a series of problems. … We have our work cut out for us.”