Human-Centred Systems

Principal Investigator: Dr Caroline Jay

Understanding the relationship between human health and the environment: using hospital admissions, prescription and experience-sampled breathing data to inform approaches to air quality modelling in Britain and Brazil.

The relationship between health and the environment is complex and multifaceted, with physical, economic, political and behavioural factors interacting to affect physical and mental wellbeing. Studying this issue – to gain knowledge to ultimately improve health – is equally complex. Whilst controlled studies have a place in validating hypotheses, real world data is necessary to truly understand the problem. Capturing this data and producing accurate models remains a challenge, however, due to the unconstrained nature of the problem.

Achieving this involves three major challenges:

  • Developing models of how pollutants interact with the environment. Air quality data is sparse, and the distribution and movement of pollutants is affected by diverse environmental factors. We know that the physical layout of the environment has a significant affect on the distribution of pollutants, and that even within the space of a few metres air quality can vary hugely. We are not, however, anywhere near being able to create predictive models that are effective in aiding planning. To achieve this we still have to resolve basic issues around data capture, such as where to position sensors, what level of detail on pollutant speciation is needed, and also where to focus modelling effort on the copious volumes of data we already have.
  • Developing models of how particular pollutants affect individuals and diseases. We know, at a macro level, that certain pollutants impact severely on health, but the details of the impact are lacking. To achieve this we need to be able to map fluctuations in respiratory and other health issues to a precise understanding of exposure to pollutants. This requires accurate information about health and location, which can then be mapped to air quality at a given point in time.
  • Empowering people to understand the effects of air quality on their health, and take action to improve it. Individuals are able to reduce the risk of exposure to pollutants if they understand how air quality varies in their local environment, and how to respond to this variation. To support this effectively, we need to understand how to provide information about air quality and behaviour such that it is actionable, rather than oppressive or anxiety-inducing.

Co-Investigator: Dr David Topping