Human World

Cellphone apps to track our health

Within a few years, we might be able to capture information about our health just by using cellphone apps. EarthSky spoke with Tanzeem Choudhury, a computer scientist at Dartmouth College and a 2010 PopTech Science Fellow.

Dr. Choudhury creates mathematical models to develop sophisticated applications – phone apps – that use sensors already available on smartphones, like the iPhone. She said:

I build computational systems that continuously capture and understand people’s lives and their behavior – what activities they’re engaged in, how they engage with others. And we’re interested in building these systems using computers we carry with us all the time, which are our cellphones.

We want to make these tools available to everyone so that they have ways of keeping track and managing their health.

Choudhury explained that smartphones are equipped with sensors that can collect data about everyday life, such as location-sensing GPS, or sound-seeking microphones that are capturing what’s going on around us – sound waves, and movement traces.

Choudhury’s working on a phone application – in collaboration with her colleagues, Andrew Campbell in the computer science department at Dartmouth, and Ethan Berke of the Dartmouth Medical School  – that can interpret the information and patterns these sensors collect to give you useful information about your health. For example, how often you’ve exercised, and ways to better your health. She added, in order to protect your privacy, you could choose what kind of information the phone collects. Choudhury explained how the information that sensors pick up can be applied to health care.

What we’re interested in is building a system that can track individual’s mental, physical, and cognitive health. If you think about human behavior, physical activities can affect heart health. Or how we carry out tasks in the home can reveal information about whether an elderly individual is experiencing cognitive decline. How we engage with others socially can reveal information about mental health. We are building systems that can help individuals keep track of their health, and hopefully use that as an early warning system if something goes wrong.

She said that this information could be used by doctors monitoring their patients’ lifestyle choices. A cellphone could provide more reliable data to doctors than a patient self-reporting how they manage household tasks or how frequently they exercise, Choudhury explained. And she said that putting this information in the hands of users could help them make their lives healthier.

We can use cellphones – which we are interacting with continuously – build systems that can not only keep track but provide information back to us about our health. It’s something that could potentially nudge people to change their behavioral patterns that could lead to an improved quality of life.

She said that for now, a person would have to actually carry their cellphone around to capture this information – which many people already do. But in the future, phones could be used as a hub that smaller, more wearable sensors would relay information to.

The phone sits on wherever a person keeps their phone in the home. But because it can communicate wirelessly, there could be smaller sensors in the form of a wristwatch or even in the form of jewelry. People are building sensors that could be in the form of rings, bracelets, or earrings.

Choudhury is aware that some people may be uncomfortable with the level of information that a cellphone can pick up. She said that on the applications she is developing, a user can choose to turn off data collection from certain sensors. She said:

All of these technologies that reveal information about where you are, what you’re doing, have a privacy concern. The way we are trying to deal with this is to give users complete control. The phone is on them, they can choose what information they want to share, what information they want to record. If you don’t want to record anything about your social interaction, you can turn off the audio.

Choudhury said she believes cellphones and the applications that run on them, will become more and more sophisticated in the next five to ten years.

Tanzeem Choudhury is a 2010 Poptech Science and Public Leadership Fellow, addressing a need for socially engaged scientists as public communicators.

March 23, 2011
Human World

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