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Watch: Researchers Can Track Mosquitoes with Cellphones

31 October 2017

The irritating buzz of a mosquito is very annoying and can make people run for the repellant. But Stanford University researchers are trying to solve this problem with our cell phones.

A researcher recording the buzzing of mosquitoes in a lab. Source: Kurt Hickman/Stanford News ServiceA researcher recording the buzzing of mosquitoes in a lab. Source: Kurt Hickman/Stanford News Service

The Parakash Lab at Stanford, led by Manu Prakash, assistant professor of bioengineering, is looking for citizen scientists to contribute to Abuzz — a mosquito monitoring platform the lab has developed to produce the most detailed global map of mosquito distribution. All that is required to participate is a cellphone to record and submit the buzz of a mosquito, which means almost anyone from around the world can take part in this work.

More than mere pests, mosquitoes can carry deadly diseases like malaria, yellow fever, dengue, West Nile virus, chinkungunya and Zika. Diseases spread by mosquitos result in millions of deaths each year and the burden of their effects is carried most strongly by places with the fewest resources.

"We could enable the world's largest network of mosquito surveillance – just purely using tools that almost everyone around the world now is carrying in their pocket," said Prakash, senior author of a paper that demonstrates the feasibility of this approach. "There are very limited resources available for vector surveillance and control and it's extremely important to understand how you would deploy these limited resources where the mosquitoes are."

With enough contributions from citizen scientists around the world, Abuzz could create a map that tells us when and where the most dangerous species of mosquitoes are most likely to be present, and that could lead to highly targeted and efficient control efforts.

"If you see a mosquito and you swat it, you've saved yourself an itch for one day. But if you see a mosquito and you record it and you send the data to the Abuzz project, then you've potentially contributed to an effort that can reduce the burden of mosquito-borne disease for many generations in the future, hopefully," said Haripriya Mukundarajan, a graduate student in the Prakash Lab and lead author of the paper.

Abuzz is a low-cost, fast, easy way to gain a lot of new data about mosquitoes. In order to contribute to this research, people just need to hold their cellphone microphone near a mosquito, record it’s hum as it flies and upload it to the Abuzz website. The researchers take the raw signal, clean up the audio and run it through an algorithm that matches that particular buzz with the species that is most likely to have produced it.

When a match is found, the researchers will send the person who submitted the recording information about the mosquito they found and mark every recording on a map on the site, showing exactly where and when that mosquito species was sighted.

The fact that the mosquito species can be differentiated by their wing beats, which create the buzzing sound, is critical to the success of Abuzz. Prakash and his team created a mosquito sound library, organized by species, which powers the matching algorithm. Overall the researchers captured about 1,000 hours of mosquito buzzing from 10 lab-reared and two wild mosquito species — all of which are relevant to human health.

Researchers have designed the platform to work off of recordings from almost any model of cellphone. Most of the data they focused on in the study was recorded on a $20 clamshell-style cell phone from 2006.

The Abuzz algorithm has worked using as little as one-fifth of a second of sound, although the recording that is a second or longer are the most helpful. These basic requirements mean that merely recording a mosquito just as it takes off from a surface is enough to create an Abuzz-worthy recording.

To make sure Abuzz works the way they intended, the researchers ran a field test with 10 local volunteers in a village in Ranomafana, Madagascar in 2016. It took around 10 minutes to train these citizen scientists. The next day they had recordings that spanned three hours.

For Abuzz to be possible, it needs engagement from citizen scientists — without contributions, it cannot reach its full potential. The researchers plan to release an app to facilitate community engagement in the near future.

"It was very easy to tell people what to do and people were very eager to participate," said Felix Hol, a postdoctoral research fellow and co-author of the paper who helped conduct this field study. "Just 10 minutes of training and they could actually produce a lot of very useful data. That was a very beautiful experience for me."

To learn more about Abuzz, visit the site.

To contact the author of this article, email Siobhan.Treacy@ieeeglobalspec.com


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