Researchers at UW-Madison have developed a new smartphone app to help them understand where ticks are active and how people expose themselves to ticks. The app is being released as Wisconsin faces an ever-increasing number of Lyme disease cases, sparking heightened concern about tick-transmitted diseases.
The app aims to help scientists better understand when and where ticks are picked up and educate people on what kinds of ticks to look out for and how to practice safe habits when venturing outside. It is now available on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.
“We’d like to know what the risk factors for tick exposure are and see what habits expose certain people to ticks and also get a sense of what prevents tick bites,” said Bieneke Bron, a postdoctoral researcher at UW-Madison who is leading the project. “Ultimately, we’d like to understand and prevent human exposure to ticks.”
Users are prompted to record a “tick diary” every evening for two weeks in which they describe their activities for the day and whether they were exposed to ticks. Anonymized data collected from many users will help researchers track the threat of tick-borne diseases.
If the app gains enough users, Bron said, developers might add features such as GPS tracking and the ability to send push notifications when users enter high-risk areas. These types of GPS-based warnings are already in use in areas like Staten Island and could be rolled out to other cities with urban-forest habitats, like Madison.
Bron said their goal is to survey 200 people across Wisconsin, and they hope to gain additional participants across the Midwest. Researchers encourage everyone to participate because all data points help in understanding what makes ticks “tick.”
The app was developed by the UW-Madison-based Midwest Center of Excellence for Vector-Borne Disease, in partnership with Columbia University and the UW-Madison Center for Health Enhancement Systems Studies, a research center that develops technology for health-related applications. The MCE-VBD is funded by a grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.