Researchers need Zika data fast. This mobile app could deliver.

A new mobile app provides real-time information about where Zika virus has spread and allows patients to report their symptoms.

kelvinZikaTracker is a mobile app developed by Alyson Kelvin and her colleagues in Brazil and at mWater. It gives patients and healthcare workers in communities affected by the Zika virus the opportunity to report the locations and symptoms of infections to the global research community. We asked Kelvin why she developed the app and how she hopes it will be used. The ZikaTracker app is available for download in the Google Play store and can also be used at zikatracker.net.

ResearchGate: What is the ZikaTracker app and what is it used for?

Alyson Kelvin: ZikaTracker is a free, mobile-based app that can be used on any smartphone or computer. Its purpose is to collect data about Zika virus cases and their locations. Essentially, we want to find out where Zika infections are occurring and what possible symptoms might be correlated with them. We’re also collecting water source information to determine mosquito breeding sites and their locations, which may be used for clean-up. If we see a big increase in Zika virus cases in a certain area, it might indicate that there’s a mosquito breeding site nearby.

RG: Who is the target user? And how can people in affected areas be encouraged to use the app?

Kelvin: We’re interested in anyone using the app. That includes patients, clinicians, and healthcare providers. To use the app you have to create an account, so basically it’s available to anyone who takes the time to do that. It can be operated in several languages--English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese--and we’re especially trying to encourage healthcare providers to use the app, because they will be able to see reports of Zika virus in their community. We’re working right now on creating a website with a map that will communicate anonymized data freely. People in affected areas are eager to find a solution to this public health emergency, and we hope that seeing their data contributions appear online will encourage people to use the app.

It’s important to me and everyone involved that users feel secure that any personal information is anonymized. Nothing personal would ever be published, just the information that the patient is willing to give. The app requires consent from the patient, so of course if a patient isn’t willing to share information, the survey is discontinued.

RG: Is the app accessible to low-income patients in areas where smartphone use may be less prevalent?

Kelvin: We find that smartphones are quite widely used in affected areas, and because the app is free, it’s available to anyone. It can be used on any type of smartphone or even just a clinic’s computer in a browser. So we hope that that makes it easily available to all types of people in all types of income brackets.

RG: How might the data collected be used to combat the virus in the short- and long-term?

Kelvin: Collecting real-time data on numbers of Zika virus cases will give us an up-to-date indication of where the virus is. We also have a survey section in the app where the user can put in clinical symptoms if they choose to. We hope with that we can indicate some type of correlation between Zika virus infection and the type of disease symptomology that is occurring during a Zika virus infection. Since Zika virus is an emerging virus, little was known about it previous to 2015. We hope this app will help provide a more accurate clinical picture of Zika virus disease during infection.

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RG: What other sources of data on Zika virus and its spread exist, and what holes in that information make additional data collection through an app necessary?

Kelvin: Well, there are the usual sources of data for any virus, like the US CDC and WHO. If you go and look on their websites, you find a lot of useful information such as the list countries that have been infected by Zika virus transmission, but there may be quite a time-lag between data collection and getting the information onto these public websites. The situation with Zika virus is rapidly developing, so we hope with our app we’ll be able to eliminate that delay. People will be able to submit their data and immediately see it on the website within a day.

RG: Is the app already in use?

Kelvin: The app is ready to be used by anyone worldwide. And people are using it--data is coming in. Right now we’re still in the process of linking that to a public website, where anonymized data can be accessed by anybody. Our hope is that this data will be used by healthcare providers and the general public, as well as researchers.

RG: What has the reception been like among users and researchers who might use the data ZikaTracker produces?

Kelvin: The app was developed in collaboration with vector disease control researchers in Brazil, Jorg Heuckelbach, Luciano Pamplona, and Carlos Alencar. Since they’re at the heart of the outbreak, they saw a real need for this type of data collection. Most people I’ve talked to, including the researchers, seem very optimistic about the potential benefits the app can bring to their communities.

I have talked one patient who has used it in Brazil, a friend of a friend who is actually going through an active Zika virus infection. He spoke to me about his symptoms and how he was feeling, and he was excited to have access to means to contribute by reporting his symptoms and his case information.

What I hear from colleagues and friends in Brazil and from the news is that people are very upset. They’re devastated about the association with microcephaly, and they’re upset and want more action. Of course it’s hard to say how governments and healthcare organizations could respond differently in this time of emergency, but people feel helpless. So the app provides an outlet for the individuals directly affected by the virus to contribute personally to the global effort to address it.

RG: How do you plan to get the word out about the app?

The first step in this process was introducing the app in the Journal of Infection in Developing Countries, targeting researchers and healthcare providers working with Zika virus. We’ll also have a press release and announce the app on the JIDC blog soon.

RG: When will the data be publicly available?

We’re hoping to have our website with the collected data and contact information up in the next few days. In the meantime, anyone with questions or suggestions--maybe additional languages they’d like to see--is welcome to contact me personally at akelvin@jidc.org or info@zikamapper.com.

ResearchGate has put together a comprehensive collection of emerging Zika virus research, including scientific papers, interviews with researchers, and discussions among them. 

Featured image courtesy of Adam Fagen