A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend the amazing Blue Dot festival at Jodrell Bank. It was an inspiring meeting of art and scientific ideas, with talks, music and activities. For me it wasn’t all play, I was there as a volunteer for the British Society for Immunology (BSI), hoping to get the festival crowds engaged in some citizen science.
Citizen science means involving members of the public in collecting data and carrying out research. Working together on such a large scale to solve a problem can have fantastic results. Our problem: why are more and more people suffering from seasonal allergies like hay fever?
We know the rates of allergy are going up in the UK (1). What we’re not sure of is why. There are a few theories out there. One idea is that we are ‘too clean’. Some scientists think that changes in our lifestyle mean we meet less or different microbes and parasites as young children. This could mean our immune system develops in a different way, leading to allergies. Although this idea is appropriately name the ‘Hygiene Hypothesis’, it’s definitely not an excuse to stop showering or cleaning the house. The dangerous microbes we try to avoid by doing things like washing our hands are most likely not the ones that make a difference in this situation. On top of that the evidence for this idea isn’t certain, it is just one theory, so don’t start eating dirt to cure your asthma just yet.
Another hypothesis is that we are meeting new and different triggers of allergy, like air pollution and pollen from farmed crops like rapeseed. This is the idea we were hoping festival goers at Jodrell bank would help us test. Along with researchers from the University of Manchester and the Royal Society of Biology, the BSI has worked with patients suffering from allergy and asthma to design a citizen science app. The aim is to learn how and when people are affected by seasonal allergies. The problem with most of the data we have at the moment is that it comes from doctors and hospitals, where people only go when things get really bad. What about the non life threatening but definitely life affecting itches, sneezes and wheezes thousands of us experience? The Britain Breathing app asks participants to record their symptoms, and links this to a rough estimate of their location from the phone’s GPS. Researchers can compare this data to pollen and pollution maps to spot patterns in symptoms and possible causes. This group effort is a great example of citizen science, getting anyone and everyone involved in potentially life changing research. We encouraged festival goers to download the app and become ‘citizen sensors’. I was pleasantly surprised at how many people were willing to take a break from the music to chat to us about the project and their experiences with allergies.
Throughout the whole Blue Dot festival I found and infectious optimism that science and creativity can change the world for the better. From the wonder of space exploration to exploring our own bodies. I hope that Britain Breathing and citizen science can be a part of this change.
If you’d like to learn more about the hygiene hypothesis this report looks at how our understanding of it has changed and why you shouldn’t stop showering yet.
For more information on Britain Breathing see their website here
- This government report gives an overview of rising allergy rates in the UK and possible contributing factors.