Using Mobile Phone Data for Effective Public Health Measures during Pandemics

At a glance




GSMA, ANICiiS, Kinshasa Digital Academy, Texaf Digital Campus, Orange DRC, Vodacom Congo, Africell RDC, Flowminder Foundation, ARPTC


Population Mobility, Data Sharing, Public Health Emergencies




Mobile Network Data


SDG #3, SDG #8, SDG #11

The Challenge

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) faced significant challenges in its efforts to effectively combat the consequences of the COVID-19 epidemic. The country’s national health information system has been hampered by limited coordination among various divisions of the Ministry of Health and the use of paper-based communication methods. A lack of timely data has made it difficult to obtain a complete and accurate picture of the situation.

The Approach

​The Congolese Health Ministry initiated a collaboration with local mobile network operators (MNOs) with the objective of using data for COVID-19 policymaking. Three operators agreed to share their anonymised data to create dynamic dashboards to show population mobility for comparison against hospital capacity. An initial knowledge-building workshop and subsequent weekly meetings helped coordinate efforts and align interests between participants.

The Benefits

The uptake of mobile phone (MNO) data has enabled evidence-driven decision-making to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by providing insights into how movement patterns change in response to government measures. These insights have also informed policymakers on the likely economic impacts of the pandemic.

Preventing and controlling the spread of infectious diseases contributes to SDG 3 (Good health and well-being). It also contributes to SDG 8 (Decent work and economic growth) by limiting the economic consequences of the pandemic. Mitigating the spread of infectious diseases can reduce absenteeism, increase productivity, and promote economic stability. Finally, by creating resilient communities and cities that can endure health emergencies, health authorities further SDG 11 (Sustainable cities).

Data Protection

This project demonstrates ways to preserve citizens' privacy and consent rights.

The context​

In May 2020, the National Agency for Clinical Information and Health Informatics (ANICiiS), the Global System for Mobile Technology Association (GSMA), the Kinshasa Digital Academy and mobile network operator Orange entered into a collaboration agreement to explore how analyzing MNO data could support the DRC government's efforts to respond to COVID-19. This was done in alignment with the country's Post and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (ARPTC). Vodacom Congo and Africell RDC, which had already supported the President of the DRC's COVID-19 task force, also joined the initiative as did the Flowminder Foundation and a number of enabling organisations (Figure 1). All mobile network operators agreed to provide their anonymised data free of charge.

Figure 1: Project ecosystem
Source: Cambridge University Press

Financing the collaboration​

Different stakeholders received funding for different elements of the project. GSMA's work has been made possible through the financial support of the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), while the German Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), Fondation Roi Baudoin and Internews provided funding for the Kinshasa Digital Academy. Flowminder Foundation's work was facilitated by support from the Human Security Division of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of the Swiss Confederation and the Displacement Monitoring Matrix program of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in the DRC.​

Implementing the collaboration

In order to improve understanding of the value of using MNO data in public health, the GSMA organised an initial knowledge-building workshop with key governmental officials, including the COVID-19 Presidential Taskforce, the Health Ministry’s COVID-19 Technical Secretariat and ANICiiS. Following the workshop, weekly "Control Room" and "Technical Committee" meetings helped to coordinate efforts and align interests among the various stakeholders, including mobile network operators, technical providers and government agencies.

Mobile data access and processing

Given the serious threat COVID-19 posed to the DRC's national health system, all three mobile operators agreed to contribute to the project by providing their anonymised data at no financial cost:

  • Orange DRC worked directly with its own analytics subsidiary, Flux Vision, to anonymise, process and aggregate its data into mobility matrices and attendance figures (number of people in a given zone) by health district. All aggregated data was then shared with Kinshasa Digital to create the dashboards.
  • Vodacom and Africell collaborated with the Flowminder Foundation to process their data at the same geographic level as Orange and aggregate them into equivalent mobility insights.

Where possible, the three models have been compared to confirm that observed trends were the same.

Caution: Mobile data can contain highly sensitive information and must be handled carefully in accordance with applicable data laws and expectations to ensure that citizens' human rights are upheld with respect to their privacy and consent. In this project, this was ensured by demonstrating compliance with the GSMA’s agreement on appropriate data protection standards.

How can better data contribute to better policy?

This project improved decision-making in the following ways:

  1. The dashboard developed by Kinshasa Digital allowed health authorities to track population mobility within and across different health districts throughout the country. This facilitated monitoring of the effects of different policies (such as lockdowns and school closures) on mobility. The dashboard also allowed for tracking of population mobility in key locations which had been previously identified as "hotspots", including universities, religious sites and the airport. The dashboard further provided a comprehensive overview of hospital capacity against which this mobility data could be compared, serving as an indispensable resource in redirecting resources within the healthcare system.
  2. Vodacom DRC, Africell, and Flowminder collaborated to produce three reports for the government, utilising anonymised and aggregated call detail records (CDRs) to assess the impact of confinement measures on mobility patterns in Kinshasa. The analysis presented to the President's COVID-19 task force on May 15, 2020, demonstrated a significant reduction in population movements following the lockdown. Flowminder’s initial report also identified the economic implications of the COVID-19 pandemic in Kinshasa, by demonstrating the pressure on household consumption manifesting in a decrease in mobile phone credit purchases. The report from August indicated a gradual return to normalcy in most mobility indicators, a trend that was later confirmed in the October report.
Kinshasa Digital’s dashboard on population mobility and hospital capacity.
Source: GSMA - Mobile for Development
“We can now use mobile data to inform the decisions of tomorrow. Mobility indicators can assist our government to make decisions, not only with COVID-19, [but with] other longstanding diseases such as Ebola and Malaria … Tomorrow, mobile data will help our Ministry to make informed decisions, allocate resources and better fight these pandemics.”

- Ministry of Health, Presentation during the UN World Data Forum (2020)

Where do we go from here?​

This project has shown the potential for data analysis in public health emergencies, especially where human mobility is a critical factor. Insights from the COVID-19 context could be applied to Ebola outbreaks. The government of the DRC, working through ANICiiS, has made remarkable progress in improving its data literacy. These efforts have resulted in increased competency and confidence within government agencies with respect to the future use of digital tools and data analytics.

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Turning mobile big data insights into public health responsesin times of pandemics

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