Designing a UK citizen science experience – BBC

How might we enrol 10,000 UK residents in an experiment that will deliver the data needed to accurately predict the impact of a future pandemic?

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Designing a U.K. citizen experience for BBC4

The problem

The outbreak of a pandemic flu virus tops the UK government’s list of threats to public safety. Currently, the mathematical models researchers use to predict the spread of infectious diseases rely on data sets constrained by small numbers of participants and limited information about their behaviour. So those in government whose job it is to plan for the inevitable emergency, have a big challenge on their hands: No one knows how fast a pandemic will spread or how best to stop it.

Partnering with researchers at the University of Cambridge, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, 360 Production and BBC Four, we set out to design a new kind of ‘citizen science’ experiment that would address the pandemic problem.

We asked

How might we enrol 10,000 UK residents in an experiment that will deliver the data needed to accurately predict the impact of a future pandemic?

Our approach

Numbers are important in this kind of research, but to meaningfully improve on existing data it was also crucial to engage participants of all ages and backgrounds. So we needed to create a user experience that could be easily understood by many different people. To achieve this we had to carefully consider and test each type of interaction as well as the interface and language used.

BBC Pandemic - Big Motive Design and Development Process

In early discussions with users, it was clear that it was important to deal with concerns over data protection, privacy and the potential for misunderstanding messages about viruses, infection and bugs. Users told us that they didn’t want to be bothered with passwords and logging in. So from the outset we designed a system to completely anonymise data, excluding any identifying information about devices, operating systems and users themselves. It also tracked location data at a lower resolution so that users’ exact location could never be pinpointed.

The science and maths teams mapped the experimental data requirements and we designed each step to find the simplest way of asking the question and the easiest way to enter the response. We worked through many iterations of this, extending into the choice of colours, style of illustration and even the sequencing of access permissions requests. The finished interface takes users through a process that carefully balances the need for usability, data security, battery and network optimisation, and crucially, delivery of the best possible experimental data.

BBC Pandemic - iOS User Interface Preview


When we launched the experiment in October 2017, we hoped to get as many as 20,000 people to download the apps with, ideally, a 50% conversion (those completing a full 24 hour study) over a five month period. This would give us 10,000 studies, the magic number that the scientists needed to create a new ‘gold standard’ in their field of research.

BBC Pandemic - Hanna Fry and Media

In just two months, the figures quickly rose to 50k downloads with 28k studies completed. A conversion rate of 94%. Not only were people keen to participate, but the app enabled them to do so at a much higher rate than anyone expected. Within 24 hours of the broadcast of the TV show in March 2018 – Contagion! The BBC Four Pandemic – another 30k studies were completed. The experiment has been hailed as a landmark success, greatly exceeding the expectations of the scientists, the team at 360 Production and the BBC. Most importantly of all, it has contributed to a huge leap forward in science that could save millions of lives.

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