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Citizen Power Mobilized to Fight against Mosquito Borne Diseases

Citizen scientists use phone apps to work in collaboration with researchers to collect huge amounts of data


The latest from Mosquito Alert, a citizen science system for investigating and managing disease-carrying mosquitoes, has collected and released 13,700 new database records on the presence, location, and spread of these mosquitos. These data, hosted in the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), are part of an ongoing world-wide collaboration between citizen volunteers, who use a specifically designed app to photograph mosquitos and report bites and locations of potential breeding sites, and entomological experts, who validate the findings to determine if the collected information provides evidence of the presence of any of the mosquito species of top concern. This study is part of a WHO-sponsored series on vector borne human diseases, which collects and presents biodiversity data for a range of different disease vectors and promotes data sharing to increase the speed at which researchers can assess and address human health threats. In this particular study, an entire community of citizen scientists have been actively engaged in furthering the acquisition of information in a cost-effective, as well as publicly educational, manner. In addition to providing a large, widespread, valuable resource for studying and containing infectious diseases, this work serves as an excellent model for bringing together the mobilizing power of citizens and scientists to address important health issues. This study has been published in the open-access, open-data journal GigaByte.

Vector-borne diseases account for more than 17 percent of all human infectious diseases, with mosquito-borne diseases causing the greatest health burden on society based on case numbers, deaths, and resultant disabilities. While there has been significant progress in the fight against malaria, this progress is currently slowing. Whereas, progress on combating other mosquito-driven diseases, such as dengue, chikungunya, yellow fever, and Zika, are expanding, due to the increasing number of cases and fatalities for these diseases. To best combat these health risks, researchers must fill the large gaps in knowledge related to the presence, spread, and activity of mosquitos that spread these diseases, Data mobilization campaigns serve as one of the best means to improve geographical data coverage. Harnessing the collective power of citizen scientists across the globe has served the scientific community well with regard to being able to collect massive amounts of information across the globe, especially in the areas of biology, conservation, and ecology. It is currently a major weapon in the fight against mosquito-borne diseases.

The work presented in the article was carried out by Mosquito Alert, which provided the first detection of the Asian bush mosquito Aedes japonicus in Spain in 2018. This finding was a striking observation as it was an isolated population of mosquitos that were located 1,300 km from its previously nearest known location in Europe. Since this species was not expected to appear in this region, it had not been targeted by any local surveillance program. This served as clear indication of the danger of monitoring specific species in areas that were primarily in and close to regions they were known to exist. However, budget and manpower limitations, make it nearly impossible to collect data across expansive ranges. Mosquito Alert, by harnessing a largely free resource of manpower, were able to extend their work to identify and track other invasive mosquitoes across a much larger geographical range. They armed a cadre of citizen scientists with a phone app aimed at collecting usable types of data and developing a harmonized methodology for collecting and validating these data by experts. The information collected in the apps are updated on a daily basis, and thus, provide near real-time information on the status of deadly disease-carrying mosquitos.

This form of combined data collection strategies provides an incredible addition to governmental vector screening programs, which require huge resources to fill all geographical corners of their countries. Since citizens with mobile devices are everywhere, the potential to use this approach as an early warning system of invasive species of all types can move from city-scale to continental scale, and, with continued growth, global scale.

Of this huge potential, first author Dr. Z?ivko Južnič-Zonta says: “Because of its daily update, this dataset could help to optimize vector control, as citizen scientists provide information about nuisance and presence of mosquitoes at almost real time.”

The availability of such a large public collection of validated mosquito images not only allows researchers themselves to work directly with these data, this enormous dataset can also be used to train machine-learning models for vector detection and classification, further increasing the power of these data to serve as part of an arsenal to improve global human health.

The value of such data collected by an army of citizen scientists in concert with experts also shows the need for developing a new publication credit system to evaluate contributions from multiple and diverse collaborators, which, for this study, included university researchers, entomologists, and other non-academics such as independent researchers and citizen scientists. For this article, the authors carefully considered and designed such a credit system. As research that makes use of citizens as a major, and free, component of research programs continues to grow, the credit system used in this article sets forth a process to allow such large consortium to provide clear credit to the entire cadre of individuals involved in any study, which is long past due.

This work is part of a series of articles that assess the range and diversity of a wide variety of vector-borne diseases. GigaScience Press has partnered with GBIF, which has been supported by TDR, the Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases, hosted at the World Health Organization. Through this, GBIF are releasing the first 11 Data Release papers on vectors of human disease in a thematic series in the journal GigaByte. To better incentivize the sharing of these extremely important datasets, the article processing charges to authors have been waived for these easy-to-write descriptions that are associated with public domain datasets in the GBIF database to assist with the global call for novel data. This effort has led to the release of newly digitized location data for over 600,000 vector specimens observed across the Americas and Europe.

- This press release was provided by GigaScience