Skip to content

Article | Developing a smartphone ‘app’for public health research: the example of measuring observed smoking in vehicles


Background We have developed manual methods to gather data on the point prevalence of observed smoking in road vehicles. To enable the widespread international collection of such data, we aimed to develop a smartphone application (app) for this work.

Methods We developed specifications for an app that described the: (1) variables that could be collected; (2) transfer of data to    an online repository; (3) user interface (including visual schematics) and (4) processes to ensure the data authenticity from     distant observers. The app functionality was trialled in roadside situations and the app was made publicly available.

Results The smartphone app and its accompanying website were developed, tested and released over a period of 6 months. Users (n=18) who have registered themselves (and who met authentication criteria), have reported no significant problems with this application to date (observing 20 535 vehicles as of 5 July 2012). The framework, methodology and source code for this project are now freely available online and can be easily adapted for other research purposes. The prevalence of smoking in vehicles was observed in: Poland 2.7% (95% CI 2.3% to 3.1%); Australia 1.0% (95% CI 0.7% to 1.3%); New Zealand 2.9% (95% CI 2.6% to 3.2%)—similar to results using preapp methods in 2011 (3.2%, 95% CI 3.1% to 3.3%).

Conclusions This project indicates that it can be practical and feasible for health researchers to work together with information science researchers and software developers to create smartphone apps for field research in public health. Such apps may be used to collect observational data more widely, effectively and easily than through traditional (non-electronic) methods.

Citation: Patel, V., Nowostawski, M., Thomson, G., Wilson, N., & Medlin, H. (2013). Developing a smartphone ‘app’ for public health research: the example of measuring observed smoking in vehicles. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

Media Release
Smartphone app shows Australians smoke less in cars than New Zealanders  Monday 4 March 2013

Research just published indicates that New South Wales has one third of the people smoking in cars compared to New Zealand.

Of nearly 5000 cars observed in Sydney, only 1% had smokers, compared to 2.9% of 10,000 cars in New Zealand. Since 2009, vehicles have legally been required to be smokefree in New South Wales when there is a child under 16 as a passenger, but there is no similar law in New Zealand.

University of Otago, Wellington researcher, Associate Professor Nick Wilson, says that the much lower level of cars with people smoking in Sydney is likely to be a result of the New South Wales law.

He says smoking in cars creates extremely high levels of pollution, even higher than in smoky pubs, and impacts on the health of children and non-smokers.

“This is further evidence why New Zealand politicians need to protect children with a law against smoking in cars. We have laws for seat belts and mobile phone use by drivers, and protecting children’s health is also very important.”

He added that “while New Zealand used to be an international leader in controlling the tobacco epidemic, it is now falling behind Australia in a number of areas such as smoking in cars and plain packaging of tobacco packs.”

“Second-hand smoke in a car is 23 times more toxic than in a house, due to the enclosed space,” says Dr Tristram Ingham, Medical Adviser for the Asthma Foundation. “Smoke-exposed children have more respiratory and ear infections, chronic bronchitis, wheezing, and asthma. They also have more frequent medical visits, are hospitalised more frequently, and miss more schooldays.”

The research involved developing an app for smartphones to allow observers to count cars with people smoking. The app is available free from the website, and app users who register on the website can download new observations on smoking in cars from anywhere in the world.Currently, both Android and iPhone (iOS) versions are supported.

Another University of Otago researcher, Dr Mariusz Nowostawski, says that both the smartphone application and website source code are freely available. This means they can be used as the basis for further refinements to the existing app, or the code can be used as a basis for other usages. Those uses could include counting observed mobile phone use in cars to help improve the effectiveness of the law on mobile phone use.

This study has been published in the international journal ‘Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health’ and funded by the New Zealand Asthma Foundation and the University of Otago.

For further information contact:

Associate Professor Nick Wilson

Department of Public Health

University of Otago, Wellington

Tel:  04 918 6469

Mob:  021 2045 523

Dr Mariusz Nowostawski

Department of Information Science

University of Otago, Dunedin

Phone:  03 479 8096

Skype: nowostawski

A PDF copy of the full published article can be obtained on request from the authors (

For a list of Otago experts available for media comment, please go to:

%d bloggers like this: