Smart device GPS technology helps predict infection spread

British scientists are using smart phone location tracking technology to predict the spread of infectious diseases. This will provide important clues about how quickly a pandemic might occur.

Technology specialists at Edinburgh Napier University are working with Imperial College London on the use of geo information, available from location tracking devices, to record the nature and frequency of interactions between individuals to understand how infections spread.

With location tracking technology in handheld devices such as smartphones it is now possible to track the path of an infected person and their contacts with one metre accuracy.

Dr William J. Knottenbelt, who leads the research team at Imperial College, said that the work aims to create more accurate infection models by more clearly understanding how individuals interact within a health care environment.

For this the team has developed software to record and playback location data with high precision. It uses Susceptible Infectious Recovered (SIR) modelling and the epidemiological technique of contact tracing to predict the spread of a disease through a network of people, taking account of parameters such as transmission and recovery rates.

Location tracking systems are already used to keep tabs on at-risk patients, who need constant monitoring to protect their safety and to monitor the whereabouts of employees working in extreme or dangerous environments.

The accuracy of real time location tracking has increased to better than ten metres and beyond since GPS was launched in 1978. Improvements have been made possible through wireless technologies such as WiFi and Bluetooth, to mobile phone network assisted GPS and radio frequency identification tags (RFID tags), and ultra-wideband.

While sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are relatively easy to track and to trace partners who may have subsequently been infected, until recently it has been almost impossible to study the route an airborne infection might take from nose to hand to door handle to hand to another nose, for instance.

Professor Bill Buchanan, Institute of Informatics and Digital Innovation at Edinburgh Napier University, said: “The experiments show that the technology gives location readings that are sufficiently accurate to monitor the movement and of individuals and their contact with others. This will provide important clues about how quickly a pandemic might occur.

“Such a system would allow emergency health providers to prioritise who may have come into contact with an individual exposed to a serious airborne illness, such as influenza during an outbreak. Another application might be to trace the source of an infection in a close environment, such as a hospital.”