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Grab a cellphone, record that mosquito
November 26, 2017, 2:56 pm
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The high-pitched whine of a mosquito is something that could keep even the weariest among us from falling asleep. Now, researchers at Stanford University in the US say that, rather than reach for a repellant to ward off the irritating buzz, people should reach for their cellphone and record the buzz and help contribute to science.

The Prakash Lab at Stanford is looking for citizen scientists to contribute to Abuzz, a mosquito monitoring platform, which the lab developed to produce the most detailed global map of mosquito distribution. All that is required to participate in the project is a cellphone to record and submit the buzz of a mosquito, which means almost anyone from around the world can take part in this work.

More than mere pests, mosquitoes can carry deadly diseases, including malaria, yellow fever, dengue, West Nile virus, chikungunya and Zika. Diseases spread by mosquitoes result in millions of deaths each year and the burden of their effects is carried most strongly by places with the fewest resources.

With enough contributions from citizen scientists around the world, Abuzz could create a map that tells us exactly when and where the most dangerous species of mosquitoes are most likely to be present and that could lead to highly targeted and efficient control efforts.

"If you see a mosquito and you swat it, you've saved yourself an itch for one day. But if you see a mosquito and you record it and you send the data to the Abuzz project, then you've potentially contributed to an effort that can reduce the burden of mosquito-borne disease for many generations in the future, hopefully," said one of the research team members.

Abuzz is a low-cost, fast, easy way to gain an incredible amount of new data about mosquitoes. Contributing to this research is as simple as holding a cellphone microphone near a mosquito, recording its hum as it flies and uploading the recording to the Abuzz website. The researchers take the raw signal, clean up the audio to reduce background noise and run it through an algorithm that matches specific buzzes with the species that is most likely to have produced it.

Once the match is found, the researchers will send the person who submitted the recording information about the mosquito they found and mark every recording on a map on the website, showing exactly where and when that mosquito species was sighted.

Critical to the success of Abuzz is the fact that mosquito species can be differentiated by the frequency of their wing-beats, which is what produces their characteristic whine. Knowing this, research team created a mosquito sound library, organized by species, which powers the matching algorithm. Overall, the researchers captured about 1,000 hours of mosquito buzzing from 18 lab-reared and two wild mosquito species, all of which were species relevant to human health.

Recognizing that people who could benefit most from Abuzz may not have access to the latest smartphones, the researchers designed the platform so that it can work off recordings from almost any model of cellphone. Most of the data they focused on in the study was recorded on a $20 clamshell-style cellphone from 2006.

Further simplifying the process, the Abuzz algorithm has worked using as little as one fifth of a second of sound — although recordings that are a second or longer are the most desirable. Such basic requirements mean that merely recording near a mosquito just as it takes off from a surface is enough to create an Abuzz-worthy recording.

For any of the grandest aims of Abuzz to be possible, it needs engagement from citizen scientists. Without those contributions, it cannot reach its full potential. The group intends to release an app to facilitate community engagement in the near future and have already produced detailed training videos.

Try to join the Abuzz platform; record mosquitoes, learn about the biology, and in the process support the kind of research and scientific data that medical entomologists around the world so desperately need and, at the same time, you will be making your own community safer.

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