Edinburgh Global

Pollution sensors help asthmatics’ health

Air pollution is amongst the five highest risk factors for global health. In India, it’s no exception. The ‘Delhi Air Pollution: Health and Effects’ (DAPHNE) project is a collaborative research initiative that is creating innovative solutions for people with asthma.

Doctors, scientists, and technologists from nine institutions in the UK and India collaborate on the DAPHNE project; the University of Edinburgh is the Lead Research Organisation. This group of dedicated innovators is exploring how the combination of novel data collection methods and machine learning can affect solutions to enhance respiratory health and minimise exposure to air pollution.

DAPHNE’s Principal Investigator, Professor D K Arvind from our School of Informatics, Centre for Speckled Computing, explains their unique way of capturing data using community engagement and technology; two wearable devices designed specifically for the project, that monitor air quality and the participant’s breathing which record data as they go about their everyday lives.

“What makes this project unique is the novel data collection method - the miniature wearable devices allow for data to be uploaded and analysed in real-time and, through machine learning, the participants receive personalised, nuanced advice to help manage the effects of air pollution based on their own level of sensitivity to pollutants. Not all asthmatics are sensitive in the same way, and this stratified data analysis tailors different care pathways. The applications of the innovation beyond this project are already active in several countries in a range of public health projects.”

Wearable sensors and real-time data

Airspeck and Respeck are the two wearable sensors that provide an easily accessible and portable means to retrieve real-time data. The team coined the phrase ‘Speckled Computing’, referring to the tiny size (potentially speckle-size) of the sensors to process data at scale.

AirSpeck and ReSpeck miniature wearable devices
Credit: Centre for Speckled Computing
  • Respeck is a plaster-like sensor worn on the skin which measures the participants’ breathing and activity.
  • Airspeck is a clip-on sensor worn on clothing or a bag that measures minute airborne pollution particles.
  • Android app – the sensors are connected to the participant’s phone by Bluetooth and data is collected in the app.

The app data is uploaded to cloud storage where it is analysed, all in real-time, to estimate the pollution inhaled and the effect on the participant. Through machine learning, a deep causal analysis of patterns and changes in participants’ well-being is possible, by combining data from stationary air quality monitors attached to street furniture, spatial-temporal data from phones, and biomarkers in samples of blood and urine from participants.

Benefits for adolescent asthmatics

The DAPHNE study focused on adolescents, aged 10 to 18, in Delhi who are living with asthma; as a population group they experience longer exposure to pollution due to time spent outside and have a higher health risk. Recruited via the paediatric unit at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Delhi, more than 130 people were invited to wear devices for periods of 48 hours in three cycles.

After users had worn the sensors for two days they followed up with standard lung function tests and examination of biomarkers in a hospital setting. What this demonstrated was that using expensive equipment and expert resources correlated with the data gathered by these relatively inexpensive devices. The same conclusions could be drawn, and detailed and personalised care pathways were possible thanks to the machine-learning analysis.

For example, the most sensitive participants could be identified quickly, and interventions taken. These could be easily actioned, nuanced, and in real-time; for example, advising the shortest and cleanest routes to travel, recommending activity levels based on current air pollution conditions, or suggesting the best times of day to be outside.

The impact of using this technology to create personalised care plans for individuals in low-resourced, highly-polluted areas is clear; it can achieve a lot, with a little.

Health impacts and new applications

The project is promising in parts of the world where air quality is poor and resources are limited. The devices are not only helpful for individuals who want to understand the effect of pollution in their day-to-day lives, but critically they provide valuable data to understand the bigger picture. They may be small, but they have the potential to influence policymakers, public health experts, environmental activists, and urban planners and to transform air pollution monitoring and its effects on respiratory health.

Projects are already underway in the UK, India, Kazakhstan, Greece, Romania, Pakistan, and Uganda, covering a range of issues; from dementia and lung transplants to COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

  • In Uganda, the devices are being used by researchers from the Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital to investigate lung function in Covid-19 recovery after hearing Professor Arvind’s talk about DAPHNE’s work in the Edinburgh International Science Festival, “Every Breath You Take”.
  • DAPHNE collaborated with British Heart Foundation to monitor MPs at Westminster with interests in environmental issues so that could evidence personal exposure data in their constituencies and make informed contributions to the debate on the second reading of the Environment Bill in February 2020
  • The Respeck device was used in a project for monitoring respiratory rate and respiratory flow/effort in a study in collaboration with NHS Borders for continuous, remote monitoring of COPD patients and guided self-management for at-home care.

The DAPHNE project has not just implemented innovative research methods that seek to make our world a better place; it exemplifies an innovative, purposeful approach to addressing environmental concerns. The project is an encouraging example of what can be achieved when science, technology, and community engagement come together to solve problems.


Find out more

Organisations in DAPHNE