A Stanford-led project to enlist freshwater prawns in the battle against a deadly disease recently entered the realm of big data.

The team’s work in Senegal, West Africa, was recognized as the best health project in the Data for Development Challenge Senegal, in which international teams use anonymous mobile phone data to analyze issues ranging from agriculture to urban planning. The competition is organized by telecommunications companies Sonatel and the Orange Group, and supported by Senegal’s Ministry of Higher Education and Research.

The researchers are studying whether freshwater prawns that prey on schistosome parasite-infected snails can control the spread of schistosomiasis, while providing a source of marketable protein-rich food (read more about the project). They used the mobile data to open a window into people’s movements among rural areas, with higher potential for schistosomiasis, and urban areas.

“This was an opportunity for us to think at a different scale,” said lead investigator Giulio De Leo, a biology professor at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute. “The mobile data allows us to calibrate the effect of people’s movement on schistosomiasis transmission at the national level in Senegal.”

Led by Marino Gatto of the Politecnico di Milano, the research team ran the data through various algorithms to build complex network models of schistosomiasis spread in Senegal that matched up closely with national health survey findings. De Leo believes the models could be refined to serve as valuable tools in determining hotspots of disease transmission and large-scale connectivity patterns driven by human mobility. That, in turn, could make intervention strategies more effective.

“Cell phone data offers a powerful new window into human mobility and movement patterns on a large scale, especially in the developing world where this kind of detailed mobility information was not previously available,” said Susanne Sokolow, a Stanford Woods Institute-affiliated research associate at Hopkins Marine Station. “Mobility data can improve our models of schistosomiasis, and possibly other diseases.”

In addition to a $2,000 prize from the Data for Development Challenge Senegal, the team received a $45,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to do further epidemiological research with national telecommunications data in Senegal.

De Leo and Sokolow have worked with various researchers on the schistosomiasis project, including Michael Hsieh, a former Stanford assistant professor of urology. In addition to De Leo and Sokolow, the team that won the Data for Development Challenge Senegal award included Lorenzo Mari, Manuela Ciddio and Renato Casagrandi of the Politecnico di Milano.

The study received a seed grant from the Stanford Woods Institute’s Environmental Venture Projects program in 2013.

Map of Senegal showing human mobility network based on data from 150,000 anonymous cell phone users. Points represent centers of administrative units, similar to counties or provinces. Lines show the relative number of people per day who move between administrative units, with red being highest and blue lowest