Did you know that you can use your smartphone to help fight mosquitoes? Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the era of citizen science!
Citizen science has become very popular in recent years with projects spanning a wide range of scientific fields, from astronomy to conservation biology. At its core it is an approach where research is conducted, partly or wholly, by non-professional (amateur) scientists…basically the citizens! From participating in the analysis of very large datasets to conducting observations in the field, people participating in these projects can be of great help for professional scientists. Furthermore, it is a great and very effective way to improve public engagement with science: non-professionals are involved directly in scientific research, taking part in the process and learning more about how research is conducted.
Medical entomologists clearly didn’t miss the train of citizen science, as showed below by a series of projects related to mosquito surveillance.
Mosquito selfies? Yes please!
Surveying mosquitoes is essential to follow the possible introduction of invasive species and their spread, and to assess the risk of vector-borne disease in an area. However, it can be very expensive and time-consuming to do it over large areas or for a long period of time. And that’s where citizens with their smartphones come into play.
Mosquito Alert is a citizen science project built around the use of smartphones. Started in 2014 in Spain to monitor the spread of the invasive tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus) and related species, it is now generating data from other countries as well. But how does it work?
Basically, citizens can download an app on their phones and if they see a mosquito (or a potential breeding site) they take a picture of it. Through the app, the picture is then checked by expert entomologists to verify the identity of the insect. Since the location is also collected via the smartphone GPS system, all the observations can be mapped. Other than revealing the arrival of an invasive species in a new area, these data can be used by public health authorities to intervene with vector control interventions.
Based on the same principle there is also Mozzie Monitors from Australia. In this project, participants do not only take pictures of mosquitoes but can also use a mosquito trap in their yards to collect them!
Towards a better understanding of research
There is no doubt that similar citizen science projects will increase in number and type in the future, potentially involving vectors other than mosquitoes.
Despite some limitations in the type of information we can get from these projects, I personally think that they can provide an invaluable source of public engagement. Participants actually learn by doing and they can see the results of their efforts (see the maps of Mosquito Alert for example). Being directly involved in science (rather than just being lectured about it) is essential for a proper understanding of it. And from understanding comes interest, and I think also respect. We can all benefit from a more open and healthy relationship between researchers and the public!
Click here for the italian version.