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Citizens help chart flu development

People are keen to make a contribution that will be valuable for scientific research. Many thousands are taking part in the Major Flu Survey. Leiden researcher Anne Land is publishing on this subject in the Journal of Science Communication.

Citizen Science

Citizens like to contribute to science, as the research by Leiden lecturer Anne Land from the Science Communication & Society department has shown. So-called Citizen Science projects combine science and education, and the researchers make valuable use of data or analyses in their scientific articles.  However, participants in these projects soon lose interest if they have the feeling that it’s purely an exercise in collecting data. 

Precise predictions

Land questioned the participants in the Major Flu Survey, a project that has been charting the spread of the flu virus in the Netherlands and Flanders since 2003. Anyone can take part in the study. Thousands of people spread throughout the country report via a website whether or not they are suffering from flu-like or similar symptoms. The project makes it possible to predict fairly accurately whether and when a flu epidemic is likely to break out.  

Diligent citizens

The weekly stream of data from these diligent citizens is indispensible, which makes the flu study a perfect example of a Citizen Science project that benefits both scientists and the public. Land: ‘In general, the bulk of the data for such projects is provided by an enthusiastic minority, but this study is different. The majority of the participants have been actively involved over several years and they send in their data every week without fail, throughout the whole of the flu season.’

Involved

The figures clearly show just how enthusiastic the participants are: of the 17,000 registered participants in the Netherlands and Flanders, around 14,000 send in data every week. For a Citizen Science project this is unheard of. According to Anne Land, the key factor is that the participants are involved in the project:  ‘The Major Flu Survey communicates regularly with the participants and never misses an opportunity to stress how important they are to the project. And on top of that, the people who take part really appreciate that the data are published on the website. It means they get to see the results of their work.’  

Introduction to science

What is also interesting is that Land’s research shows that many citizens had nothing to do with science before taking part. She says, ‘We always thought Citizen Science was mainly focused on people who had at least some affinity with science. Our results show  that for some people taking part can be a great introduction to the scientific world.  This project happens to be about the flu, but it could equally easily be another subject.

GPs

The Major Flu Survey is not the only body that is collecting flu data. The National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) also looks at the number of flu notifications via the healthcare registrations of General Practitioners who are affiliated to the Netherlands Institute for Health Services Research (NIVEL). ‘But,’ Land comments, ‘it’s the young and the elderly who tend to visit their GP when they have flu, while most other people just stay at home. The Major Flu Survey compiles data from people who don’t go to see their doctor. In the Netherlands, that’s around 75% of the population.  These two sets of data complement one another.'

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