Arming Citizen Scientists With an App to Identify Zika Carriers

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Observing mosquito larvae collected from a puddle in the Peruvian Amazon. (Renee Codsi, IGES)

Arming Citizen Scientists With an App to Identify Zika Carriers

Rusty Lowe

The pace of progress in global health is determined by our ability to seed, nurture and spread innovation. Through Grand Challenges for Development, USAID uncovers promising ideas and applies rigorous, market-oriented approaches to cut the time it takes to transform ideas in a lab to impact on the ground.

Rusty Low’s keen interest in investigating habitats has taken her from archeology and paleoclimate research to where she is today: following the spread of mosquito-borne illnesses such as Zika through the use of mobile technology.

“I’m interested in climate, how it’s changing, and how mosquitoes are responding to these changes by becoming an invasive species and expanding into new habitats. We developed an app where people can work as citizen scientists to identify breeding sites for mosquitoes potentially carrying the Zika virus, and become agents of change reducing the risk of Zika and other vector-borne diseases in their communities. They can report their findings, including habitat data, which end up on a shared map in the cloud,” says Low, a climate scientist at the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES).

Mosquitoes are responsible for the transmission of a number of very serious pathogens, such as Zika, malaria, dengue, West Nile virus, and yellow fever. The impact of these infectious diseases are immense, killing millions of people and animals every year, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.

Rusty Low teaches a student citizen scientist how to photograph mosquito larvae using a cellphone camera and macrolens. (Rebecca Boger, CUNY)

Rusty Low teaches a student citizen scientist how to photograph mosquito larvae using a cellphone camera and macrolens. (Rebecca Boger, CUNY)

Funded by NASA, the app, called GLOBE Observer Mosquito Habitat Mapper, allows anyone with a smartphone to identify potential mosquito breeding sites and count samples of mosquito larvae. Specimens can even be examined and photographed for genus identification using a small magnifying lens that clips onto a mobile phone. This information enters a global database, which can be used by scientists to predict mosquito population dynamics and potentially by public health authorities to manage risk of diseases, such as the Zika virus and dengue.

When USAID launched the Combating Zika and Future Threats Grand Challenge in 2016, Low applied for a grant to pilot the Mosquito Challenge Community Campaign program with teachers and students in Peru and Brazil, two countries that were greatly impacted by Zika at the height of the outbreak. The campaign uses the Habitat Mapper app to engage students as citizen scientists to collect and share mosquito data, and develop local mitigation strategies that reduce the risk of disease in their communities.

“All these excited kids came over to me to look at the image through my camera, saying, ‘Wow, this is cool!’"

Conducting a training on how to identify mosquito specimens collected by citizen scientists in Lambayeque, Peru / Renee Codsi, IGES

Conducting a training on how to identify mosquito specimens collected by citizen scientists in Lambayeque, Peru. (Renee Codsi, IGES)

IGES was one of 26 grantees who received USAID support to accelerate innovative approaches to fight the current Zika outbreak and to help strengthen the world’s ability to prevent, detect and respond to future infectious disease outbreaks. The grant funded the development of educational materials for teachers to use in their classrooms that connect health education, environmental awareness, scientific discovery, and community-based action.

Teachers have shown strong enthusiasm for this program, and recognize the potential impact that it could have in their communities. To date, Low and her team have trained over 250 teachers, and provided the required materials and equipment for teachers to execute these activities with their students.

“All these excited kids came over to me to look at the image through my camera, saying, ‘Wow, this is cool!’” Low says, recalling a training in Brazil. “They understood that the larvae were associated with mosquitoes and what to do to eradicate them before they are dangerous and make you sick.

“This project will create new data sets that do not exist today; help students better understand their environment and mitigate risk; deliver the new data sources to health officials and their communities; and enable the efforts to be replicated throughout the world.”

About the Author: Avery Waite is a Program Analyst in USAID’s Center for Accelerating Innovation and Impact and helps manage the Fighting Ebola and Combating Zika and Future Threats Grand Challenges.

Editor's Notes: Russanne (Rusty) Low holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maine, a master’s degree from the University of Edmonton, Canada, and a doctoral degree from the University of Minnesota. She is a senior earth scientist at the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies and has served as a volunteer scientist and educator through the GLOBE International Scientist Network since 2001.

This entry originally appeared in USAID's 2030: Ending Extreme Poverty in This Generation publication on Medium.com.