Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

February 2017

Translating sensor data and citizen science into public health

New environmental exposure sensors, combined with citizen science, offer exciting possibilities for improvements in public health, according to participants in a lively data science roundtable. The event was organized by the South Big Data Regional Innovation Hub in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

The Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI) of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) hosted the Jan. 11 event. RENCI and the Georgia Institute of Technology co-direct the South Big Data Hub, one of four in a network of hubs established in 2015 by the National Science Foundation in collaboration with the host institutions.

RENCI is also involved in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) All of Us program, also known as the Precision Medicine Initiative, which aims to harness big data to improve public health. David Peden, M.D., an NIEHS grantee and roundtable presenter, described an NIH project he is involved with through RENCI, the Biomedical Data Translator Program. They are working to incorporate environmental measures into health analytics.

Citizen science for air quality monitoring

Two Ohio State University researchers joined the roundtable by video. Ayaz Hyder, Ph.D., from the College of Public Health, and Andrew May, Ph.D., from the College of Engineering, described a citizen science project with a Columbus-area high school. Students are using air quality monitors to studying traffic-related air pollution at their schools, May explained.

According to Ayaz, a major highway follows the area’s north-south gradient of socioeconomic status. Local high schools are located along the same route, at different distances from the roadway, leading to varying exposure levels.

Potential users of the citizen science data include health providers. With incentives to improve community health, they could benefit from knowledge of environmental health disparities among the populations they serve.

Sensor data and health alerts

Peden, who directs the UNC Center for Environmental Medicine, Asthma, and Lung Biology, envisioned a different way of using sensor data. He suggested a system that could generate alerts for likely asthma attacks, based on information about combined exposures, such as air pollution and secondhand cigarette smoke.

"An episode of asthma or bronchitis isn’t going to occur immediately after exposure," Peden explained. "It’s going to be 8 to 48 hours later." With an alert, a physician could advise a patient to use additional corticosteroids.

Paul Kizakevich, who leads a personal health informatics research team at RTI International, described sensors that provide both data and analysis in real time. An air sensor, for example, might notify a user with asthma that a neighbor is using the fireplace, so the user should stay indoors.

Beyond data and technology

RENCI Deputy Director Ashok Kristhnamurthy, Ph.D., moderated discussion among several dozen attendees and those who participated remotely. Questions addressed how data might inform public health actions, and optimal price, size, and weight of sensors (see sidebar for more topics).

In summarizing an exchange about motivating study participants, Kristhnamurthy captured an emerging theme. "The technological and medical issues may not be the only important ones to deal with, but [also] the social science and economics of the whole ecosystem," he said.

Moving forward in data collection and integration

David Balshaw, Ph.D., who was unable to attend the roundtable, oversees grants for sensor development as head of the NIEHS Exposures, Response, and Technology Branch. "For the last decade, we have been working on developing and validating wearable sensors that measure personal environmental exposures," he said.

"It is particularly important to turn our attention to the challenges of integrating that data with other sources of exposure and health information," Balshaw added.

Lea Shanley, Ph.D., co-executive director of the South Big Data Hub, said the group is sponsoring a series of these roundtables on research challenges and potential solutions in data science and analytics around the south. A video of the Jan. 11 roundtable is available.


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