Using GPS and a smartphone to track air pollution exposure

A study in Buffalo will track air pollution exposure -- with the help of a smartphone app.

A study in Buffalo will track air pollution exposure -- with the help of a smartphone app. Funded by a two-year grant from the National Institutes of Health, the research will link air pollution with study participants' GPS locations.

I spoke recently with Carole Rudra, an assistant professor of social and preventive medicine at the University at Buffalo, about this work.

How will the app work?

The app will measure the person's location very frequently using a GPS receiver in the cell phone. It's going to stream that data to our server. We're going to use that data in models of air pollution exposures. The models we're using are based on a person's location at any given moment -- how close they are to a major road, how densely populated the area is, the particular time of day and time of year.

Our primary purpose is to use these apps for participants in research studies -- not to measure their pollution instantaneously, but to link their health information to their air pollution. We're also going to try to design the app to give the user an instantaneous or near-instantaneous estimate of his or her air pollution exposure. That's a secondary aim of our project.

How far along is the work now?

We only started this project last September. We are gathering all the data to build the exposure models. We're just starting to build those now. We're starting to write the programming for the apps. We hope to do both Android and iPhone apps.

Why is it important to track air quality in this way?

There is a lot of research on air pollution and its health effects. My research in that field started with pregnancy health effects in particular. We typically make the assumption that a person's air pollution exposure is that which is measured at their house. We use their residential addresses to measure their pollutant exposures. It's pretty obvious that that's incorrect because the most air pollutants -- particularly those related to traffic -- vary quite a bit within an urban area. My exposure at my house may not be the same as my exposure when I'm commuting or when I'm at my office. We recognize that cell phones are a cost-effective, non-invasive and convenient way to measure study participants' locations, so we can improve our estimate of their air pollution exposures.

What else would you like to add?

This is really exciting because epidemiologists, for the most part, still rely on traditional measures of exposure assessment -- pen and paper questionnaires, primarily. We use bio-markers as well, but for many exposures there's not a good bio-marker. One of the most exciting aspects of this project, to me, is taking the knowledge of the computer science community and applying that to epidemiological research. That's not really done a lot, so I'm glad to be contributing to that extension of our field.

Photo: Carole Rudra

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