Fighting hay fever with your phone: How citizens use an app to become climatologists

Research on your own doorstep: Interested citizens are now invited to actively participate in climate research with a free app. The highlight: Users also get something in return: For example tools to better cope with a pollen allergy. The app is part of the joint project ‘BAYSICS’. Professor of Geography Dr. Susanne Jochner-Oette from the KU is responsible for the sub-area of pollen.

Running nose, itching eyes – the hay fever season has begun. You should not be fooled by snow and ice, because the pollen of some plants, such as the hazel, already starts flying in January. In spring and summer, not only woody plants but also grasses and herbs produce a lot of pollen. Just over 15 percent of Germans suffer from hay fever. This makes it the most common allergy in this country – and the number of people affected is rising. Climate change is also to blame for this trend. Dr. Susanne Jochner-Oette, Professor of Physical Geography / Landscape Ecology and Sustainable Ecosystem Development at the KU, explains the connection like this: "At higher temperatures, pollen grains are often produced in greater quantities and released earlier. In addition, they usually contain more allergens and therefore have a more aggressive effect.”

This means: no good times ahead for all those suffering from hay fever. Susanne Jochner-Oette and her doctoral student Johanna Jetschni want to help. The main tool here is the free web app "BAYSICS". With just a few clicks, users become "Citizen Scientists" and help create a risk map for hay fever sufferers on the one hand, and collect data for research into climate change and its effects on the other hand.

Taking part is easy: All you need is your own smartphone or PC and a walk outside. Where and when do birch, hazel or grasses bloom in my home town? By collectively recording allergenic plant species, users gradually create a risk map. This means that pollen allergy sufferers will soon be able to easily look up which areas they should better avoid. Users can also keep a diary of their symptoms. "This allows every individual to monitor their allergy and adjust their personal behavior", explains Susanne Jochner-Oette. Everyone who participates also helps to fill the data pool and thus supports our research. It is a win-win situation, says Jochner-Oette: "We are not simply tapping into information, but actually giving something back to the citizens.”

The Eichstätt pollen research is part of the joint project ‘BAYSICS’ of the Bavarian Network for Climate Research. Several associated sub-projects are investigating how climate change is affecting plants and animals in Bavaria. It is particularly important for the scientists involved to communicate their findings to the wider public. By actively involving citizens as "lay researchers," the complex subject of climate change is vividly communicated and made tangible for individuals. "We want to raise awareness of the fact that climate change is happening everywhere and is also having a clear impact on our lives in Bavaria", says Prof. Dr. Susanne Jochner-Oette.

With various analysis tools, app users can act as scientists themselves. The app also includes a pollen calendar and basic explanations of the observed phenomena. For example, the "Pollen Story" explains that pollen in itself is harmless and only turns into a problem when our human immune system identifies it as a foreign particle and tries to get rid of it by any means necessary.

Even those who do not suffer from hay fever can support the research in the BAYSICS project and become a "Citizen Scientist". In other sub-projects within the app, it is possible to report flowering plants, height limits of trees or animal sightings in the city. "Climate change not only has an influence on pollen production, but on all of these areas, and everyone can experience this live here directly in the region", emphasizes Prof. Dr. Susanne Jochner-Oette. The offer is thus expressly aimed not only at allergy patients, but at everyone who is enthusiastic about nature.

Jochner-Oette and her doctoral student Johanna Jetschni are hoping for active participation, especially in the region around Eichstätt and Ingolstadt. The two researchers have also installed a pollen measurement network to investigate further questions. Among other things, they plan to compare the pollen concentration data with the symptom data from the app. They say that this would make it possible to assess whether high levels of air pollution always go hand in hand with high levels of human exposure. "For example, if pollen concentration in the air is low, but the symptoms in humans are strong, that could be an indicator for increased aggressiveness of the pollen", Jochner-Oette explains.

Anyone who wants to participate can go to www.baysics.de to download the app and enter their observations. The risk map for allergy sufferers is also available on the website.