Data Mining Your Cell Phone

Understanding data mining on your cell phone starts by understanding how your phone stores data. Your mobile phone reveals more about you than your computer. It keeps track of where you are, how fast you travel, who you call or message and how long the conversation lasts, every moment of the day. And that, it turns out, is good for your health.

Cellular service providers store all that data. Medical researchers are now data mining that digital information to find new ways to treat health care issues. The applications range from the very large scale, such as a project to track the spread of malaria in Kenya, to the very small scale, such as reminding an individual by text message to take their medications, for example.

The new field is called mHealth. The "m" stands for mobile, to distinguish it from eHealth. The latter developed from the use of computers and other electronic devices to study, treat and prevent disease. The advantages of mobile phones in recording and tracking human behavior are so new and so important that they have opened a whole new field of medical research and care. The advantages of mHealth research apply globally, to developed and underdeveloped countries alike.

There are seven billion people on the planet and six billion cell phones. Mobile phones have penetrated remote areas of the world that computer technology has not been able to reach. One of the biggest uses for data mining cell phone usage is in developing nations with limited medical facilities and inadequate numbers of doctors and nurses.

The husband-and-wife team of Caroline Buckee and Nathan Eagle at Harvard University are pioneers of data mining for public health. In Kenya, mapping cell phone use, the Harvard researchers identified travel patterns in the movements of people on a grand scale. This led Buckee to be able to track the spread of malaria, as well as to pinpoint the cities where malaria was rampant and the new areas that were receiving infected people.

Mapping epidemics in real time allows instant response in terms of shipments of medical supplies and preventive measures. Travelers can be warned of current conditions through text messaging. Local residents can be given the same alerts and the means to cope with the situation. Public health officials can track the response and change focus immediately. They can predict where the disease will move next.

Another use of mobile technology in developing countries is the ability to connect instantly with medical care professionals in the field. Available personnel in remote locations can treat diseases with up-to-date protocols that are sent to them by cell phone. Records of treatment can be sent back and stored. Appointments can be kept at a remote location and phoned in. Data mining these records helps track medical treatment and recovery over time, in what are called longitudinal studies. These are the studies that can lead to breakthroughs in the treatment of diseases.

The potential for use of cell phone data mining in individual care is equally vast. Already, researchers are tracking where, when and how often calls are made in order to predict social behavior and manage chronic care. Addiction control can be taken to the personal level. An alcoholic, for example, can be steered clear of a bar that turns up on the GPS. Mental health is another field for personal intervention. A depressed person can be reminded to make more phone calls, since socializing is important in treating depression.

The rise of personal computers led to patients researching their own medical issues. Mobile technology now allows those patients to track their medical histories and to receive constant feedback on their care. Followup messages on prescribed activities, scheduled appointments, and health tips are all part of the new field of mHealth. Apps are rapidly being developed to monitor vital signs, keep records of medications, log exercise routines and much more.

Smartphone users will have more and more ways to manage their own care. The GPS in the phone tracks the phone's location; the imbedded accelerometer chip can be used as a motion sensor to detect when its owner is exercising. Monitor apps can input heart rates and other vital signs. Ginger.io is one company that has already developed an app for medical monitoring.

Research on the effects of social behavior on wellness and longevity is ongoing. Data mining gives universities instant information on behavior. Having it in digital form makes the storage, correlation and application of this information faster and easier. Breakthroughs in ways to study our lives are changing the face of medicine.