One in every four people in Britain suffers from some kind of allergy, a discernible rise in recent decades. Why the increase in allergy prevalence may be answered by gathering data nationwide on seasonal allergies, such as hay fever or asthma using an army of “citizen sensors” – volunteers equipped with the data-gathering power of their own smartphones.
The volunteers are being recruited as part of the Britain Breathing initiative, a 2016 collaboration between the British Society for Immunology, the Royal Society of Biology and Manchester University. This project involves a purpose-designed app downloaded to volunteer’s smartphones that will generate a constant stream of data about their changing respiratory symptoms. This can then be matched against environmental variables such as pollen levels or airborne pollution allowing researchers to investigate how changes in the environment may be affecting the immune systems of allergy sufferers.
Crucial to this project is the immense computing power of the modern smartphone. This ubiquitous, handheld device can carry out instructions at a rate that is something like 120 million times faster than the best computers used in the Apollo space programme of the 1960s, a direct result of a rule in electronics known as Moore’s law, where computing power has doubled every two years since humans first stepped foot on the Moon. This rule also explains for instance why the best portable computers of the early 1980s were 100 times heavier, 500 times the volume and cost about 10 times as much as a typical Apple iPhone today.
The Britain Breathing app exploits this hand-held digital power by asking each volunteer to answer a simple series of multiple-choice questions about how they feel at any one moment. Combined with location and time of day, the information is uploaded to researchers skilled in the science of big data research, such as data mining and computational analysis, to reveal patterns, trends and associations that might otherwise be missed.
“Seasonal allergies are increasing in the West but we don’t know what is driving this. It could be pollution, super pollens, increased cleanliness, or a combination of factors,” says Sheena Cruickshank of Manchester University and the BSI, the head of the project. “What has been missing to answer this question is wide-scale human data about what is really happening. Because detailed information on pollen and pollution is available, we want to map Britain Breathing data onto that and perhaps come closer to understanding what really drives allergies, on both an individual and a national level.”
And it is the mobile phone that has enabled scientists to pursue this novel approach to solving a modern mystery of immunology.