One of the oldest and most common techniques in disease ecology is mathematical modelling. At its most basic level, it uses a set of equations that predict how the numbers of people infected by a disease in a population will change through time. The aim of the Patient Zero project is to explain infectious disease modelling by simulating an epidemic with people attending a local festival playing the part of the population experiencing the infection.
We are Manda Minter, Beth Levick and Cassie Raby, and all three of us are PhD students in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour at the University of Liverpool. We have developed the project together with the Liverpool ScienceGrrl Chapter and the Forgotten Futures app.
We are each researching how disease moves through populations: leptospirosis in urban slums in Brazil; wildlife plague in Kazahstan; and baboons in Namibia. We are all interested in how we can describe the spread of disease and try to make predictions about how it might move in the future.
Patient Zero will feature a downloadable app available to festival goers. By downloading the app and playing the game, people will be entered into the “susceptible population”, as well as getting access to other exciting content within the app, such as their own unique network graphics.
As long as they keep using the app, participants have a chance of becoming “infected” at any time. The numbers of “infected” and “susceptible” people will be displayed at the patient zero base and can be shared with the participants by any of the ScienceGrrl volunteers around the festival, who will receive regular updates.
At the same time, participants will be an important part of a real scientific research project. Disease modelling is used every day, but for scientists to make better predictions about future disease outbreaks, they need to really understand the population. This is where our participants come in; as they enjoy the festival and take part in the app, the app will periodically send us location information. Once this has been disconnected from any identifying information, this will be stored in our database.
Contact events and modelling networks
With this database we will be able to build a picture of the network of individuals generated at the event. Whenever individuals are in the same location for a period of time, a “contact event” is generated between them.
By looking at the number and nature of the contact events we can get an idea of how people move around and interact at the event, which gives an insight into possible paths that a real infection could take through this population. Repeating the same simulation with the recorded contact events, the predictions about how the disease would spread in real life would be much more realistic.
Modelling these networks for human contacts is incredibly difficult, and the help provided by these participants in building this network with us could be valuable for predicting and controlling future disease outbreaks.
Patient Zero at the Threshold festival
The Patient Zero project will take place over all 3 days of the Threshold festival, in the Baltic Triangle area of Liverpool over 28th-30th March 2014. Festival goers will be able to chat to us more about the model they are involved in and our research.
The festival features a mix of art, theatre and music, and this year organisers are inviting along scientists who are working through or alongside ScienceGrrl, to communicate their work to the 3000 or so festival goers. More details about the event and how to get tickets are here.