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Tackling poor air quality in town and cities: the value of ‘citizen sensors’

The use of data from ‘citizen sensors’ – people providing regular feedback on their daily experiences – could help to define and deliver more effective clean air strategies in towns and cities, a University of Manchester expert has argued.

A recent study conducted at the University using a citizen science mobile phone app called Britain Breathing and involving over 700 UK residents found that more individuals living in towns and cities reported significantly worse hay fever symptoms than those living in the countryside.

The research was based on 36,145 symptom reports submitted in the five-year period from 2016 to 2020.

In an article published by published by the University’s policy engagement unit Policy@Manchester, Professor Caroline Jay makes the case that the ‘citizen sensors’ approach, which can be as simple as asking people to respond to a regular prompt on their phone, could be utilised by policymakers to put everyday experiences at the heart of decisions on air quality schemes.

“This includes identifying the locations where the measures may deliver a significant impact,” she writes.  “This could also help to build support for these schemes and initiatives where there may not have been a consensus amongst the communities impacted, such as the expansion of ULEZ (Ultra Low Emission Zone) in London and the reviewing of CAZ (Clean Air Zone) in Greater Manchester, by offering a more holistic evidence-based account of why a measure should be used.”

People rated the extent to which their eyes, nose and breathing were affected as either 0 (not at all), 1 (mildly) or 2 (seriously). Analysis found that the three symptoms captured by the app were roughly twice as severe in urban areas as in rural ones. Symptoms also endured for significantly longer periods of time for people in towns and cities.

Professor Jay writes: “Whilst previous research had looked at hospital admission and prescription data, this was the first study to capture people’s real experience of hay fever symptoms as they lived their daily lives, which is important, as most people do not go to the doctor about this.”

She continues: “The study provides evidence that urban surroundings may exacerbate hay fever and asthma symptoms.  It is also interesting from a public health perspective because it provides a broader picture of chronic health issues experienced by people in their daily lives.”

The University of Manchester academic adds: “Most research looking at the impacts of the environment on health only considers clinical data, which documents people having acute and/or serious reactions.  From this study, we can see that pollution may be affecting the health of many people who are not visible to the health service, but whose well-being is nevertheless impacted.”

“Determining the impact of poor air quality in cities on daily life: the value of using ‘citizen sensors’ and agile platforms” by Professor Caroline Jay is available to read on the Policy@Manchester website.

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About Professor Caroline Jay Caroline Jay is a Professor of Computer Science and Head of Research in the School of Engineering. She is qualified as both a Psychologist (BA, CPsychol) and Computer Scientist (MSc, PhD), and undertakes research crossing these domains. She is Research Director of the Software Sustainability Institute, and a keen advocate for open and reproducible science. Caroline is a Fellow of the Alan Turing Institute, where she leads the ‘Human-Centred Systems’ health project. She founded the Manchester arm of the BBC Data Science Research Partnership, and the Human-Centred Design theme of the ‘Digital Futures’ initiative. She is the Software Engineering lead for the EPSRC Human-Like Computing Network+, the ESRC Emerging Minds Network+ and the NERC Digital Solutions Hub. She was named in the Guardian as one of the 2022 Top 50 Women in Engineering.   About Policy@Manchester As the University’s policy engagement unit, Policy@Manchester connects researchers with policymakers and influencers, nurtures long-term policy engagement relationships, and seeks to enhance stakeholder understanding of pressing policy challenges.

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