CDC looks to cell phones for outbreak containment

How do you get the word out to people in an affected area to take immediate precautions? The CDC looks to GPS-enabled cells.

It hasn't happened yet, but what happens if and when avian flu starts to spread from person to person? Well, a lot of bad things, so the need for people in affected areas to take proactive measures is critical.

The Centers for Disease Control is experimenting with emerging technologies like "During an outbreak or emergency, getting good info to the public rapidly about what they need to do protect themselves is vital and can save lives," says CDC spokeswoman Jennifer Morcone.

At the Center for the Advancement of Distance Education (CADE) at the University of Illinois at Chicago, researchers are helping the CDC to develop an emergency alert system that would rely on the Global Positioning System (GPS) features built into many of today's mobile handsets. In areas hit with an outbreak, people who carry GPS-enabled mobile phones and are subscribed to the alert service would receive an emergency alert text message with instructions about where to go or what to do during specific emergencies, such as an outbreak of anthrax or bird flu.


The problem is in knowing whom to contact. That's where GPS comes in.  

In that way, people in areas hit with an outbreak could receive directions to the nearest medical clinic and be told what routes to take in an evacuation.

 "Using mobile devices could be an ideal way to communicate with people directly affected, because more than 200 million people in the U.S. subscribe to a mobile service," says Ken Hyers, principal mobile analyst at ABI, a technology research firm based in Oyster Bay, NY.

But naturally there are problems: privacy,  funding, logistics and network vulnerability.


Infrastructure such as cell towers and the T1 Internet lines that the cellular network depends on proved to be more reliable during Katrina than many expected. In fact, many people text-messaged each other reliably during the hurricane, according to Hyers. He says that, in some cases, Verizon and BellSouth arrived at disaster sites in New Orleans and before FEMA. Often they were able to replace backup power on cell tower generators and get T1s back up and running.

Infrastructure and privacy issues haven't discouraged researchers in Japan, where mobile carrier KDDI, IBM Japan, and Kyoto University are collaborating on a real-time evacuation alert service for mobile phones. The service displays small readable maps and evacuation routes in the event of an earthquake or other natural disaster. A trial of the system is underway in Kyoto.

Well, Verizon looks pretty good compared to FEMA, but ... this program is another reason that decentralizing networks is a good idea.