UCL News


New app launched to monitor spread of infectious diseases

27 September 2017

Dr Hannah Fry (UCL Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis) is involved in a new project which aims to better understand how pandemics, such as flu, can spread across the country.

Hannah Fry2  

Researchers will collect data about how people travel and interact via a mobile app. The app, launched today and commissioned by BBC, is called BBC Pandemic and researchers hope it will play a key part in predicting how a flu pandemic might spread across the country and also help determine what can be done to stop it.

The project needs members of the public to download the app to take part in the experiment. Dr Fry explains, "If you want to know how a pandemic spreads, there are two things that are really important. You need to know how often people come into contact with each other and how far they travel. And if you have that, you can create a mathematical simulation of what a pandemic would look like, and use that to ask questions."

Although flu outbreaks are common, in the last 100 years there have been four pandemics of deadlier types of flu, including the Spanish Influenza, which killed up to 100 million people worldwide. According to the UK Government's Risk Register, a catastrophic flu pandemic is considered the biggest threat to the country - more so than natural disasters or terrorism.

Dr Fry explains, "If a pandemic comes, you can't stop it. The only thing you can do is be as prepared as possible. And that's why this stuff is so important, so that when the time comes, you can know that you're making the right decisions. The decisions that you're making at that time make a huge difference as to how quickly it spreads - the difference between the NHS dealing with a thousand patients or ten thousand patients a day - and that's all down to planning."


Two experiments will be conducted via the app. The first is the "National Outbreak", which is open to anyone in the UK to participate in from today, and the second is the "Haslemere Outbreak", which is a closed local study open to only people in Haslemere, Surrey. The second experiment hopes to witness how a virus actually spreads within a town of people, tracked over a three-day period.

Dr Fry has emphasised the importance of collecting new data to help understand how a pandemic would spread. "The only real data set that the epidemiologists use at the moment is a paper survey that was done ten years ago, and only has a thousand responses in the UK."

The data will be completely anonymised. In addition, the locations of participants will be recorded only approximately, to the nearest kilometre squared, for a duration of 24 hours.  

It will be used by researchers from the University of Cambridge and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to make predictions. Once a mathematical simulation has been created, this can be used to answer questions like how many hospital beds are needed, how many antivirals are needed and when to close airports and schools.


When asked how many people she would like to take part in the experiment, Dr Fry said, "Ideally, it would be amazing to get 10,000. If we could do that it would be a gold standard for epidemiologists."

The app can be downloaded from today via the App Store or Google Play. Members of the public who do not have a smartphone can take part in an online survey.

For more information, click on the link to the BBC Pandemic website, below. 



  • Source: BBC