A new app is allowing scientists to conduct a nationwide citizen experiment that could save the UK from the deadly effects of a viral pandemic sweeping the nation.
The BBC-commissioned ‘Pandemic’ app is now available for anyone with a smartphone to download, and will be tracking your movements over a 24 hour period, to see where and with whom we interact.
The idea is that this information (which is totally anonymous) will then allow a team of mathematicians at The University of Cambridge and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, led by Dr Hannah Fry, to build a contagion model that shows how diseases spread.
In 1918 Spanish flu was responsible for killing over 50 million people globally, and a century later influenza still tops the list of risks to our country on the Civilian Risk register.
According to the UK government, a pandemic of flu (not just seasonal coughs and colds) could see up to 50% of the population experience debilitating symptoms, and as many as 750,000 fatalities in a short space of time.
Unfortunately modern air travel and the extent of global movement means that stopping a pandemic is “really hard, if not impossible” so instead we have to rely on a robust plan of action.
This plan requires scientists being able to accurately predict how these diseases spread through populations, in order to devise a dynamic healthcare plan based on evidence.
But obviously no one wants to volunteer to contract avian flu and spread it to all their friends and family, so the app acts as a marker.
Nobody gets ill, no phone is “infected” and downloading the app is not downloading a virus, so can’t be passed from phone to phone.
It will track your approximate position (to within about a squared kilometre) once per hour for 24 hours.
At the end you’ll be asked about the number of people you had significant contact with (this means proper face-to-face conversation or physical contact, handshake, hug, kiss).
And don’t worry, it is data grouped for anonymity - so no one in charge of the experiment will know exactly where you are at any point.
The team are hoping to encourage as many people as possible to take part, and if they are able to reach a pool of 10,000 people, they will reach a new gold standard. That means the resources they are able to create are better than anything we currently have at our disposal.
There is one experiment going on a national-scale as well as a localised one in Haslemere, Surrey.
To download the app, search ‘BBC Pandemic’ in the App Store or Google Play.