Evaluating Spatial Interaction Models for Regional Mobility in Sub-Saharan Africa

PLoS Comput Biol. 2015 Jul 9;11(7):e1004267. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004267. eCollection 2015 Jul.


Simple spatial interaction models of human mobility based on physical laws have been used extensively in the social, biological, and physical sciences, and in the study of the human dynamics underlying the spread of disease. Recent analyses of commuting patterns and travel behavior in high-income countries have led to the suggestion that these models are highly generalizable, and as a result, gravity and radiation models have become standard tools for describing population mobility dynamics for infectious disease epidemiology. Communities in Sub-Saharan Africa may not conform to these models, however; physical accessibility, availability of transport, and cost of travel between locations may be variable and severely constrained compared to high-income settings, informal labor movements rather than regular commuting patterns are often the norm, and the rise of mega-cities across the continent has important implications for travel between rural and urban areas. Here, we first review how infectious disease frameworks incorporate human mobility on different spatial scales and use anonymous mobile phone data from nearly 15 million individuals to analyze the spatiotemporal dynamics of the Kenyan population. We find that gravity and radiation models fail in systematic ways to capture human mobility measured by mobile phones; both severely overestimate the spatial spread of travel and perform poorly in rural areas, but each exhibits different characteristic patterns of failure with respect to routes and volumes of travel. Thus, infectious disease frameworks that rely on spatial interaction models are likely to misrepresent population dynamics important for the spread of disease in many African populations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Africa South of the Sahara / epidemiology
  • Cell Phone / statistics & numerical data*
  • Computer Simulation
  • Employment / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • Models, Statistical*
  • Population Dynamics*
  • Spatio-Temporal Analysis*
  • Travel / statistics & numerical data*