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How should social mixing be measured: comparing web-based survey and sensor-based methods

Timo Smieszek13*, Victoria C Barclay1, Indulaxmi Seeni1, Jeanette J Rainey2, Hongjiang Gao2, Amra Uzicanin2 and Marcel Salathé1

Author Affiliations

1 Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, Department of Biology, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802, USA

2 Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1600 Clifton Rd. MS-03, Atlanta, GA 30333, USA

3 Current address: Modelling and Economics Unit, Public Health England, London NW9 5EQ, UK

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BMC Infectious Diseases 2014, 14:136  doi:10.1186/1471-2334-14-136

Published: 10 March 2014



Contact surveys and diaries have conventionally been used to measure contact networks in different settings for elucidating infectious disease transmission dynamics of respiratory infections. More recently, technological advances have permitted the use of wireless sensor devices, which can be worn by individuals interacting in a particular social context to record high resolution mixing patterns. To date, a direct comparison of these two different methods for collecting contact data has not been performed.


We studied the contact network at a United States high school in the spring of 2012. All school members (i.e., students, teachers, and other staff) were invited to wear wireless sensor devices for a single school day, and asked to remember and report the name and duration of all of their close proximity conversational contacts for that day in an online contact survey. We compared the two methods in terms of the resulting network densities, nodal degrees, and degree distributions. We also assessed the correspondence between the methods at the dyadic and individual levels.


We found limited congruence in recorded contact data between the online contact survey and wireless sensors. In particular, there was only negligible correlation between the two methods for nodal degree, and the degree distribution differed substantially between both methods. We found that survey underreporting was a significant source of the difference between the two methods, and that this difference could be improved by excluding individuals who reported only a few contact partners. Additionally, survey reporting was more accurate for contacts of longer duration, and very inaccurate for contacts of shorter duration. Finally, female participants tended to report more accurately than male participants.


Online contact surveys and wireless sensor devices collected incongruent network data from an identical setting. This finding suggests that these two methods cannot be used interchangeably for informing models of infectious disease dynamics.

Contact networks; Social network; Proximity network; Droplet transmission; Contact survey; Wireless sensor network