Towards an Australia-wide pollen-monitoring network

A new nationwide pollen monitoring network is set to provide relief to allergy sufferers by giving them advanced warning on the changes in pollen levels and the likelihood of the onset of allergic symptoms.

Pollen Monitoring Station court ABC crop 640 1

Pollen monitoring stations are being set up by the project in capital cities around Australia to provide pollen forecasts. (photo courtesy of ABC News)

The new network, being developed by Dr Janet Davies and her team of researchers from The University of Queensland (UQ) Lung and Allergy Research Centre, will utilise pollen-monitoring stations established in capital cities around Australia to provide accurate and up-to-date data on pollen count levels. Information will be delivered to the medical community and allergy suffers via a website as well as a mobile app.  The website and app will also deliver educational material and health guidelines to help allergy sufferers manage the risks in their location.

“That [the network] will enable us to accurately assess and forecast the level of pollen exposure for patients who are allergic to grass pollens,” commented Janet in a recent interview with ABC News.

“It’ll work by establishing a group of academics at different institutions around Australians at the major urban centres … we will each set up a pollen monitoring station using the same methodology for collection and counting.”

“This will enable us to develop an understanding of the differences in the timing and level of exposure to important types of allergic pollen which is Australia is primarily grass pollen,” she said.

The Australia-wide pollen-monitoring network is a step closer thanks to a $30,000 grant awarded to Janet’s team at UQ by the Allergy and Immunology Foundation of Australasia (AIFA) in March this year.

“The funding we received via AIFA is already being put to good use”, explains Janet.  “We have pollen monitoring stations in several capital cities around Australia and have started developing the end-user web and mobile products.  We plan to begin next spring, but to make this a sustained national program additional funding will need to be secured.”

Johnson grass flowers

Johnson grass flowers

The monitoring network has in-part evolved from the Australian Aerobiology Working Group convened through TERN’s ACEAS facility in 2013. This Working Group gathered together medical professionals, botanists, and climate change modellers, among others, to collate and analyse historical published and unpublished pollen count data from different regions of Australia and New Zealand.

“We were fortunate to source some valuable data that was on the verge of being lost – for example a handful of 31/4 inch floppy disks were retrieved from a garage, and a separate set of hand-written data needed to be digitised,” recalls Janet. “The practical obstacles to accessing and integrating these datasets couldn’t have been more extreme.”

However, the biggest challenges were less tangible. “When you’re dealing with long-term datasets, that many people have contributed to, and different agencies have funded over time – who owns the data? Who holds the legal rights and responsibilities with regard to its use or re-use? And how do we ensure the published data are protected from misuse or unauthorised commercial exploitation?”

Fortunately TERN’s licensing policy and data publishing infrastructure have been designed to help ecosystem scientists cope with these kinds of issues. Over the ensuing months Janet worked closely with ACEAS staff and her working group colleagues across the country to resolve issues with data ownership, access and licensing.

Janet Davies has used TERN’s collaborative networks and data infrastructure to provide the platform from which to establish the inaugural national pollen-monitoring network

Janet Davies has used TERN’s collaborative networks and data infrastructure to provide the platform from which to establish the inaugural national pollen-monitoring network

Finally, the group’s first paper was accepted – on the condition that all the datasets involved were all published in a suitable online repository. Putting TERN and ACEAS infrastructure to work, the 11 sites that make up the network (7 from Australia and 4 from New Zealand) weekly pollen count datasets were then:

  1. Published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia Licence;
  2. Assigned unique Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs) by TERN’s DOI-minting service (which enables published datasets to be cited, just like papers); and
  3. Published (made publicly discoverable and downloadable) via TERN infrastructure (the TERN Data Discovery Portal and visualised in the ACEAS data portal by selecting ‘Australasian Pollen Aerobiology’ from the left-hand-side menu).

The group then used this synthesised dataset to investigate a number of important questions, including how “pollen rain” and patient exposure to pollen allergen, biogeographical and yearly variability in the pollen seasons, and the likely impacts of climate change on seasonal peaks in allergenic pollen production.

The resultant dataset has provided the platform from which to establish the inaugural national pollen monitoring system.

“Open sharing of data remains challenging, for many reasons,” reflected Janet. “But there’s increasing pressure and many advantages for scientists to become more collaborative, as we discussed in a recent article on the working group outcomes. It would have been much more difficult for us to publish our paper in PLOSONE if TERN’s data and publishing infrastructure hadn’t been available.”

“Ultimately, sharing data through synthesis working groups extends the reach and scope of use for datasets and yields maximum benefit for the scientific and wider community.  It’s great to know others who may use our data now or in future, may be able to add value to our data thereby increasing the overall impact of our work.”

Published in TERN newsletter June 2015

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