How we got the Go Ahead for the Microbe Map

Unfortunately I couldn’t make it to the planning meeting in April where the details of the Microbe Map were hashed out*.  However one question which I’m told was discussed in detail was the ethics of the experiment, and how we should plan the work to make sure we weren’t taking any risks (to ourselves or anyone else) and to avoid potential minefields.  An important part of this was getting permission to swab the items that formed part of the map: although the original plan was to sample bank ATMs in the city, it occurred to us that despite the fact these are publically accessible, they actually belong to the banks  – who might worry about what the results show.  Even if we weren’t specifically going to be drawing any such conclusions, “Bank X has the most germs!” was a headline they would not want to see in the Metro!

Rather than get consent for each place to be swabbed on the day, someone made the great suggestion that we could get blanket consent from either Transport for Greater Manchester (TFGM) or Manchester City Council for their property.   So I was tasked with getting this officially signed off, armed with some specially designed consent forms.

TFGM seemed a little nonplussed by the request at first – I don’t think they’d ever been asked anything quite like that!  However I finally got hold of their Media Officer, who said that we could have permission to take samples from bus stops (but not bus stations or trams) around Manchester.  We also had their permission in theory to sample buses, but since these are owned by the bus companies we would have had to ask them as well to get full permission, and by this stage time was short.

The council were a little more interested in the details of the experiment, and I had a long chat with their Public Protection Manager in the Environmental Health department.  She seemed to think it was a very interesting project, and asked lots of questions which I think echoed those discussed at the meeting.  How exactly would we decide where to swab?  What kind of conclusions did we expect to draw?  Would we be able to identify specific species of bacteria? (no.) Would we be able to culture any particularly harmful microbes? (unlikely!) What would we do with the results afterwards?  She took this to her manager, and the next day sent an email which said that we had permission to sample council property, on the condition that we discussed the results with them before distributing them anywhere.

It’s really interesting to see the differences in attitude, and how important it is to think about these things.  When we came up with the idea of the microbe map we hadn’t really considered the full implications of sampling in public.  Data distribution is an important part of the DIYBio ethos, and I think I’m glad that in the end we decided to concentrate on sampling bus stops.  Not only did this  mean that our experimental design is more straightforward (we can compare lots of different places that, because they are all bus stops, should in theory be the same but might differ because of the location) but we are free to make the data publically accessible without going back to TFGM first for their approval. Of course, we will share the results with them as well, because I’m sure they will be interested. Personally, I can’t wait to see what we find!

If you want to come and see the results, and perhaps help figure out the best way to visualise the data and make it accessible, come along to the next DIYBio meeting on Wednesday 18th May at 7pm.

*I was at the London Hackspace with their DIYBio group on the same night, and linked up by skype for a shout out!)

Written by Naomi Jacobs

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