Research and technology collide to help Tasmanians breathe easier

For most people, every breath comes without a thought. But for some, taking in the outdoor air and scenery can literally be breathtaking.

Through creative work and research Associate Professor Fay Johnston and her team have created a smartphone app to help bring simplicity back to breathing for Australians with asthma, hay fever and other lung conditions.

As a public health physician, environmental epidemiologist and sessional general practitioner, Associate Professor Johnston was consistently seeing environmental conditions affect the health of her patients. Together with a large team of local and international researchers and developers, she created AirRater, the first smartphone app of its kind in Australia to assist people suffering from respiratory complications including hay fever, allergies, asthma and other lung diseases such as chronic bronchitis.

I don’t think any single person or disciplinary field could have done this. Ideas were sparking between our team members from all kinds of backgrounds; health, environment, ecology, big data management, software design and information technology.

A two-way stream of data

Using real-time data from a high-resolution pollution, meteorological and pollen monitoring network across Tasmania, information is integrated and loaded onto the platform so that users of the AirRater app can quickly assess the current environmental conditions specific to them.

While the app offers its users information on the air quality near them to help manage their daily activities and intake of preventative medications, it encourages its users to report their daily symptoms of asthma, allergies and hay fever. This two-way stream of data over a period of time allows the app to develop a personalised report showing individual users how the current environmental conditions may impact on their symptoms, and providing an alert system when the environmental conditions are present or likely to occur.

“The day to day quality of life for people with respiratory problems can really be inhibited when the air quality is poor, especially when there is no way to plan or to take action around it.

AirRater has now had a significant impact on people with these issues, providing them with a tool to assist in working around environmental conditions that had previously been barriers to their enjoyment of life.

Positive health impacts

Since the app’s launch in 2015, thousands of Tasmanians and now people in the ACT have utilised the app. More than 15,000 reports have been generated to help users better manage medications, adjust their exercise plans and sway their participation in activities during environmental conditions that may have a negative impact on their health. The positive outcomes of this app have not only been felt from individuals but also various community health agencies, with it now integrated into public health response strategies for risks from airborne allergens such as pollens.  AirRater also provides an early warning system to alert Tasmanians to upcoming heat and cold waves, and episodes of increased air pollution from bushfires, planned burns, and wood heaters.

Research with a global impact

Associate Professor Johnston’s work in air quality research is increasingly relevant as the global population faces the impact of landscape fires, air pollution events and increases in heat waves due to climate change. But research in this area has specific challenges.

“The unpredictability of environmental hazards affecting air quality and entire populations makes the duplication of these scenarios in a research setting nearly impossible. My work over the next five years will be conducting a program at the forefront of applied research looking a wide range of studies to reduce the impacts of reduced air quality.

My aim is to reduce the burden of illness and death associated with airborne hazards, by providing high quality evidence for public health policy and clinical practice.

Taking the evidence of her research findings on risks to members of the community who are more vulnerable to environmental stressors including expecting mothers, their babies and young children,  she hopes to develop a new set of health guidelines on effective ways to reduce the risks.

“With issues such as these, public health and management responses are hampered by a paucity of evidence about the full spectrum of adverse health impacts, the best ways to communicate risk and the most effective ways to reduce the impacts. My goal is to change the way people approach these risks by looking at evidence-based facts from research conducted by my team and collaborators.”

Categories: Environment, Health

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