New app studies tick disease risks

Seeking participants on Block Island
Fri, 08/25/2017 - 9:30am

An innovative and new behavioral study is being conducted on Block Island using a free smartphone app to examine how daily activities expose people to the risks of acquiring diseases transmitted by ticks. The all-mobile research study app, called “the Tick App,” is available to IOS and Android smartphone users.

The app was created by Columbia University’s tick and Lyme disease research team, led by Dr. Maria Diuk-Wasser, a professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology (E3B). It offers the Block Island community a way to understand what activities and specific locations on the island lead to the highest risk of tick exposure. The pilot study is open, and is seeking residents and visitors on Block Island to participate by utilizing the app through September 2017. Dr. Diuk-Wasser intends to report her findings before next spring.

A summary from the research team noted that the goal of the study “is to evaluate the use of ecological momentary assessments as a tool to assess risk factors for Lyme disease. This study will be conducted on Block Island, and data on human behavior will be obtained from a smartphone application using momentary assessments methodology to assess real time behavior and movement.”

“We’re excited about the app,” said Dr. Diuk-Wasser, who noted that the pilot study was hatched out of collaboration with a colleague. Dr. Diuk-Wasser’s team began using the app in June, and will share the results with Dr. Peter Krause, a Senior Research Scientist studying vector borne diseases at Yale University. Dr. Krause and his team will test participants at the conclusion of the study at the end of September. 

Dr. Diuk-Wasser said subjects will participate using the app for about three weeks during the study. She said the app tracks the participants range of movement daily providing mapping information about dangerous areas on the island. She is hopeful that her research draws a large field of participants. 

Dr. Diuk-Wasser has been working on Block Island since 2010, investigating links between the island’s environment, animal populations, and human cases of Lyme disease. Other members of her research team are Pilar Fernandez, an Earth Institute post-doctorate fellow, and Pallavi Kache, who will be starting her PhD program at E3B in the fall.

Fernandez, who has been leading the team’s communication efforts, said the app provides a way to use “new tools and resources to conduct our research.” She noted that users can participate using either a username, or their own name if they choose. “We’re the only ones who will be accessing the data” from the study, she said. 

According to a press release, “The Tick App uses a combination of pop-up survey questions and geolocation technology” to collect data. “With these functions, Dr. Diuk-Wasser’s research team will be able to uncover how people’s day-to-day activities and movement around the island play a role in their risk for tick bites and tick-borne diseases. This information can help develop disease-control programs that take the lifestyle of the Block Island community into consideration and help develop educational programs to reduce disease risk.” 

The Tick App asks participants to:

Answer two multiple-choice questions sent at random times each day about their current activity

Answer two multiple-choice questions at the end of each day about all the activities they did that day

Answer one fill-in-the-blank questionnaire at the end of each day about how many ticks they found on themselves and their pet (if applicable)

Turn on “location services” so that the participant’s movement around the island can be detected

The summary states that the aim of the research is “to recruit 100 Block Island residents and 100 visitors who have a personal smartphone. Vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women, the elderly, or children, will be excluded. The study will produce highly precise behavioral data about tick exposure which will lead to deepen our understanding on what intervention strategies might be most needed and most effective, pertaining to the fight against tick-borne disease.” 

The Block Island Times reported on Dr. Diuk-Wasser’s five-year research study that she presented at the Island Free Library on July 11, 2016. During her presentation she explained the pivotal role that deer and mice play in the spread of tick-borne diseases on Block Island.

To learn more about the app or to schedule an interview, contact: Maria Diuk-Wasser, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology at Columbia University. Phone: 212-854-3355 E-mail:, Website:, Study Website: and Twitter: @diukwasserlab. Dr. Diuk-Wasser said she is seeking additional funding to further the evolution of the app and her studies, which she hopes to continue into the near future.