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School teams with BBC to map pandemic spread

Nationwide citizen science project will use smartphone data to simulate spread of a highly infectious disease within the UK.
BBC Pandemic presenter Dr Hannah Fry

Pandemic influenza has been identified by the UK Government as the most immediate threat to our species, topping the UK National Risk Register. Scientists from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine are now working with the University of Cambridge and the BBC to collect a data set that can be used to predict how the next pandemic flu would spread through this country.

Dr Adam Kucharski, Assistant Professor in the Centre for the Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases, who helped design the study, said: “This project gives us a unique opportunity to collect large-scale data on UK movements and social interactions. This information is crucial for understanding how epidemics might spread, but we currently have big gaps in our knowledge. If enough people to sign up to the new study, we can generate an extremely useful resource for researchers.”

UK residents can take part in the BBC Pandemic experiment by downloading the BBC Pandemic app onto their smartphone. Two experiments will be conducted using the app: the National Outbreak, open to anyone in the UK; and a closed local study that is only open to people in the town of Haslemere.

Data gathered via the app will be used by the researchers to predict how a pandemic flu might spread across the country, and determine what can be done to stop it. By identifying human networks and behaviours that spread a deadly flu, the app will help to make existing models more accurate. The project will feature in a documentary on BBC Four in 2018.

There are flu outbreaks every year but in the last 100 years, there have been four pandemics of a particularly deadly flu, including the Spanish Influenza outbreak which hit in 1918, killing up to 100 million people worldwide. Nearly a century later, a catastrophic flu pandemic still tops the UK Government’s Risk Register of threats to this country.

Key to the Government’s response plan are mathematical models which simulate how a highly contagious disease may spread. These models help to decide how best to direct NHS resources, like vaccines and protective clothing - but the models are only as good as the data that goes into them.

In the National Outbreak, the app will track the movement of participants at regular intervals over a 24 hour period. Participants will also be asked about the journeys they made and people who the spent time with during those 24 hours. The data will be anonymised before researchers process and analyse it.

The Haslemere study will focus on people who live and work on the Surrey town of Haslemere for a 72 hour period from Thursday 12October. GPS data will be collected during this 72 hour period to see how a flu outbreak might spread across the town.

This national citizen science event has been commissioned by BBC Specialist Factual and is being undertaken in collaboration with researchers at the University of Cambridge and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

The results of the experiment will be revealed in a 90 minute documentary, BBC Pandemic presented by Dr Hannah Fry and Dr Javid Abdelmoneim, which will air in spring 2018 on BBC Four. The documentary will provide new insight into the latest pandemic science and use the data collected by the BBC Pandemic app to chart how an outbreak would spread across the UK.