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Britain Breathing: decoding the science behind the allergies

Britain Breathing logo

Citizen science is a simple idea with big potential – it aims to involve large numbers of people who have no formal training in scientific research.  So far, citizen scientists have classified galaxies to discover more about their morphology, tracked nematode worms to investigate how genes affect behaviour and identified invasive plant species to help combat the threat from these non-native species to name but a few projects.  Despite their increasing popularity, until now, there haven’t been any citizen science projects that focus on immunology research.  All that has changed however with the launch in March of #BritainBreathing, the BSI’s joint citizen science project to find out more about seasonal allergies. 

What is #BritainBreathing?

#BritainBreathing is our citizen science project to investigate the effects that seasonal allergies, such as hay fever or asthma, are having on the people of Britain.  We want to work with the public to find out how seasonal allergy symptoms differ across the country and what the triggers for this might be.  Working with the Royal Society of Biology and researchers from the University of Manchester, we have developed an app (currently available on Android) that allows people to record and monitor their own allergy symptoms while also contributing to a large open data set that the project team will use to answer some of the key unknown questions about seasonal allergies.  We hope that this project will not only further research in this area, but also engage the public to discover more about the science and health implications of seasonal allergies.

Why did the BSI decide to get involved in this project?

The BSI has a long history of running innovative and impactful public engagement projects.  Getting involved with citizen science and working in partnership with the public to produce novel and meaningful scientific findings seemed to us the logical progression of this work.  However, we needed to find the right topic to work on that would incentivise and inspire a large demographic of the public. 

With one in four people in the UK suffering from seasonal allergies, this seemed an obvious area to concentrate on. It’s a topic that everyone can relate to – we all either have a seasonal allergy ourselves or know someone who does.  Additionally, seasonal allergies are a fascinating scientific area with lots of unanswered questions.  “Seasonal allergies are increasing in the West but we don’t know what is driving this,” says lead researcher and BSI trustee Sheena Cruickshank from the University of Manchester.  “What has been missing to answer this question is wide scale human data about what is really happening.”  The #BritainBreathing project gives us the perfect opportunity to generate a large nationwide dataset of allergy symptoms, so we can increase our understanding in this area.

How did we develop the #BritainBreathing app?

Our first step was to bring together a multidisciplinary team with experience and expertise in the various areas needed to make the project a success.  Along with public engagement and communications input from the BSI and Royal Society of Biology, we are working with several departments at the University of Manchester (Life Sciences, Computer Science and the Health eResearch Centre) to ensure we have all bases covered.

Our next step was to run some initial workshops with people who have allergies to gauge interest and inform the app design.  Feedback was very positive. Using ‘paper prototyping’ techniques, workshop attendees sketched out the functionalities that they thought a mobile app should have, using mock phone screens, printed buttons, ‘widgets’, pencils and paper (see figure 1). They also provided thoughts on how the app should operate (quick and easy-to-use) and prioritised the most important functions to include.  The most useful feature which would incentivise continuing participation was voted to be a personal symptom tracking, followed by alerts about symptoms in the local area. The findings from these workshops have really driven how we’ve developed the #BritainBreathing app and hopefully mean that we have reward mechanisms in place to incentivise people to continue inputting their symptoms on an ongoing basis.  It was then down to our team to work with the app developers to ensure that these features were fully realised.

How does the #BritainBreathing app work?

The #BritainBreathing app is free to download on Android from Google Play – search for “BritainBreathing”.  The app itself allows people to record their allergy symptoms in a simple and straightforward way.  You are first asked how you are feeling today and then you need to record how allergies are affecting your eyes, nose and breathing on sliding scales. These data are anonymously shared with the research team, along with information on time and approximate location.  This will create a large open data resource which we can then combine with other publicly available data (such as weather, pollen or pollution statistics) to try to increase our understanding of when allergy symptoms are occurring and what the triggers might be.  As #BritainBreathing will be an open data resource, we actively encourage approaches from other researchers who feel access to this data might be applicable in their study.

Why should people use the #BritainBreathing app?

#BritainBreathing is a great opportunity for the public to get involved in scientific research on allergies and directly contribute to increasing our understanding of when and why seasonal allergies occur.  We’ll be regularly updating users and anyone else who’s interested with our progress and the latest news from the project team via our website (www.britainbreathing.org) and news alerts.

The current version of the app also has a built in tracker that allows people to monitor their own symptoms over time.  This is a great way to find out and record how allergies are affecting you from day to day.  Finally, we hope that the app will also help to raise public awareness and understanding of allergies and provide people with the opportunity to learn more about how and why allergies occur.

#BritainBreathing is our citizen science project to investigate the effects that seasonal allergies, such as hay fever or asthma, are having on the people of Britain.

What’s happened since the launch of #BritainBreathing?

Lots! Our first priority was to encourage as many people as possible to download the app and use it.  Since our launch in March, we’ve received substantial media coverage, the highlight of which was a feature piece and interview with our lead researcher Sheena Cruickshank on BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science (still available on iPlayer for those of you who are interested).  We will keep on highlighting #BritainBreathing to the media over the summer period as we approach peak hay fever season, meaning more people will be motivated to download the app.

We now have access to the first round of data submitted to the app and team members from the Department of Computer Science at the University of Manchester are busy creating an interactive map on our website to visualise allergy symptoms across the country.  This should launch soon and will hopefully a great resource for users to compare their experience of allergies to others in their region and beyond.  

What are our future plans?

The #BritainBreathing team are attending a number of events and festivals over the summer, including Cheltenham Science Festival, the Lambeth County Show and bluedot festival at Jodrell Bank, to raise the profile of the #BritainBreathing project and to talk to people about the science behind allergies. If you’re interested in volunteering with us at any of these events, do let us know!

Additionally, #BritainBreathing has been chosen as one of the official citizen science projects for Manchester’s year as European City of Science.  Celebrations kick off this June and we hope that this will also improve our profile.

Finally, we’re aware that we need to encourage as many people as possible to use the #BritainBreathing app and a big part of this is launching the app on iOS too.  We are currently raising funds for this and we will have more news to bring you soon.

Once the app is established, we will start to analyse the data and hopefully be able to show how effective it can be to use ‘people power’ to answer difficult research questions.  Please do download the app and encourage friends and family to do likewise.  Every data point counts!

Jennie Evans
Communications Manager
British Society for Immunology
Email: j.evans@immunology.org