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A social network to improve community health

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September 02, 2013

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Through the use of mobile and web appli­ca­tions, people have more access than ever before to infor­ma­tion aimed at improving health and well­ness. But less is known about how these social tools should be designed, what deter­mines their effec­tive­ness, and how they can con­nect people with others in their com­mu­ni­ties to pro­mote nutri­tion and encourage phys­ical activity on a larger scale.

Andrea Parker, an assis­tant pro­fessor of per­sonal health infor­matics and human-​​computer inter­ac­tion at North­eastern, is focused on solving these challenges.

“We’re trying to under­stand how tech­nology can help reduce health dis­par­i­ties,” said Parker, who is among a group of fac­ulty involved in Northeastern’s first-​​in-​​the-​​nation doc­torate pro­gram in per­sonal health infor­matics. “My research takes a human cen­tered approach, which means I do a lot of community-​​based research to under­stand the needs, values, and pri­or­i­ties of a pop­u­la­tion, par­tic­u­larly people in low-​​income communities.”

Her research begins in these com­mu­ni­ties, many of which have lim­ited access to  healthy food and play areas for chil­dren. She con­ducts focus groups and sur­veys to col­lect health-​​related data from indi­vid­uals and then uses that data to design mobile and ubiq­ui­tous tech­nology tools—such as touch screen appli­ca­tions and mobile phone software—that pro­mote healthy diets and phys­ical activity. It is crit­ical, she said, that these tech­nolo­gies are both engaging and sustainable.

One of her projects in the early stages, which she’s working on in col­lab­o­ra­tion with fellow Bouvé fac­ulty mem­bers Carmen Sceppa and Jes­sica Hoffman, is a mobile tool that helps con­nect fam­i­lies in Boston’s low-​​income neigh­bor­hoods. This summer, Parker con­ducted focus groups with com­mu­nity res­i­dents at the Sat­urday Open Gym, an ini­tia­tive of Northeastern’s Healthy Kids Healthy Futures pro­gram in which fam­i­lies par­tic­i­pate in fun, free activ­i­ties. Based on her com­mu­nity inter­views, Parker will develop a mobile tool that encour­ages par­tic­i­pants to con­tinue their healthy habits throughout the week and urge their neigh­bors to do the same. It may include apps that pro­vide goals and rewards for par­tic­i­pants, or a mech­a­nism to share media and per­sonal suc­cess stories.

In a way, it’s very much like a social net­work cen­tered on pro­moting and sus­taining healthy living. “Most social net­working appli­ca­tions involve users con­necting with family and friends, but far less is under­stood about how people con­nect within a neigh­bor­hood,” Parker explained.  “How can we con­nect people together to engage in healthy behav­iors? What do they need to be suc­cessful? Very often, we think of how social net­works can ben­efit our­selves. But I’m inter­ested in how these tools can empower people to improve the health of others in their neighborhoods.”

In a prior study, Parker designed a com­mu­nity mosaic that lever­aged touch screen and mobile dis­plays. Com­mu­nity mem­bers uploaded photos and text mes­sages that inspired their healthy eating. The media were then dis­played at a local YMCA, where other com­mu­nity mem­bers could interact with a touch screen and read about their neigh­bors’ healthy activities.

The idea behind the project, Parker explained, was to study if and how this inter­ac­tion helped inspire action among the YMCA’s users and to what extent it shifted a person’s posi­tion as a health advo­cate in their com­mu­nity. “We found that the mosaic changed people’s ideas about the impor­tance of being health advo­cates,” she said.

From a big pic­ture point of view, Parker hopes to not only reduce com­mu­nity health dis­par­i­ties but also con­tribute to the field of com­puter sci­ence by exploring technology’s role in fos­tering healthy out­comes. By doing so, she said, “we can impact change on an even larger level.”

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