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Mobile masts could help measure rain and chill vaccines


22 February 2013

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The researchers say their findings could be applicable in Africa and other places that lack a reliable network of rain gauges.

Mobile-phone masts in Africa could be used for other development initiatives, such as filling gaps in rainfall data and providing electricity to refrigerate vaccines, experts say.

For example, masts could be used to measure rainfall in areas without rain gauges, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) this month (4 February).

A general lack of rain gauges across Africa hinders countries' ability to monitor water resources and improve early warning systems that could save lives and cut the cost of flooding.

In the PNAS study, the researchers estimated average rainfall intensity from telecommunication network data for the Netherlands, taking advantage of the fact that rain causes signal losses between mobile-phone masts. They then compared these estimated rainfall maps with those generated from radar and rain gauges.

"There was a good match between the rainfall maps based on the mobile network and those based on the radar and rain gauge data," says lead author Aart Overeem, a hydrologist with Wageningen University in the Netherlands and the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute.

The researchers say their findings could be applicable in Africa and other places that lack a reliable network of rain gauges.

They hope their study will persuade mobile-phone companies to release relevant data freely for use in research and to measure rainfall.

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