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How Our Surroundings Affect Our Mental Health  

They walk around the inner city of Copenhagen. Around their neck they wear a small front-facingcameracatching a picture every 5th second from their chest of their urban experiences – be it a park or a concrete wall, a traffic jam or children playing. They wear a GPSgadgetrecording their locations. And finally, a health trackeraround their wrist trackstheirphysiological reactionsto the city scenery.   

This is part of a PhD project, and it is about understanding how we humans react physiologically to our surroundings. Does the green view or the concrete wall make us happy or stressed out? Earlier studies have shown that the environmenthasa great impact on our physical and mental health, but there is a need for more in-depthstudies, so we also know how tomitigateenvironment-related diseases.   

ChineseZhaoxiZhang came to Denmark to do the PhDwhich is part ofBERTHA,DenmarksBig Data Center for Environment and Health, at Aarhus University.BERTHAwasestablished and funded by Novo Nordisk Foundations Challenge6projects.TheideabehindBERTHAis: 

  • Totake a whole life-course approachfrom conception to disease onset, togather, link andanalysebig datato be able to understand how different environmental conditions affectdiseases such ascancer, heart and respiratory diseases, diabetes, neurological diseases, allergies, mental health andwell-being  
  • To develop and expand mathematical models, methodsand tools to handle the necessary data sources  
  • To increase the competencies of health and environmental researchers to understand and benefit from the Big Data revolution by creating a comprehensive and exceptional training package and program for PhD students, Post Docs and seniorresearchers
  • To createstrong national and international collaboration between researchers and partners focusing on the interplay between different environmental conditions, social impacts and human health.

Professor CliveSabel is heading thecenter:

We have access to all environmental data in Denmark: water, soil, air. On top of that we are layeringthe environmental exposures. What are the causes of illnesses from an environmental point of view?” saysCliveSabel. The area on data ethics is causing us challenges, as we need to knowwherepeople have been during theirwholelife-course, and that impinges on peoples privacy. Our role as scientistsis to use the data to discover the cause of some diseases, whilst working within the dataprivacyconstraints.”  

According to the privacy policy and information letterinZhaoxiZhangsPhDprojectUrban HealthSensing, all data collectedwill beanonymisedand no identifiable data will be used in reports or publications – unless the participants explicitlygivewrittenconsent. The recordings in the camera will only happen outside andinpublicspace.Only theclassificationsof imagerywill be used in data analysis,original images withclearfigures willneverbe released in any circumstances.Thedata fromtheGPS and health trackerwill be aggregatedin the analysis, not for tracking personally.   

Clive Sabel says: We dont store any of thepersonaldata we use for research.Thatallremains securelywithin Statistics Denmark. We access data by secure remoteloginsand we cannot take outanythingotherthan aggregated(and thereforeanonymised)data. We canadd our owndata –eg.fromthe personal sensors,but we will never know who you are, as Statistics Denmark provide anonymous linkage. Statistics Denmark is a national treasure. It has so much value for science. 

TheBERTHAcenter, which includes 30+ staff, is halfway through its 6 years duration, and they have already generated a lot of results particularly regarding our mentalhealth.Over thenext three years, the focus will also be onhow different environmental conditions affect cancer, heart and respiratory diseases, diabetes,neurological diseasesandallergies.   

Thecenteris alsoinvolved withdeveloping tools likeLuftenpå dinvej, which shows which streets are most polluted in the cities. And there will be more tools to come.   

Back toZhaoxiZhangsPhdproject: Fornowonly 15 people have been measuring theirreactionstothe environment in a pilot for thePhD, which finishedinDecember last year. Now,ZhaoxiZhang is waiting forCornonalock-down to beoverand she hopes to equip up to 100 test persons with the three trackers and sensors,toarrive at a deeper understanding on how theurbanenvironment affects our minds and mental health.