UWE Bristol project to empower individual health awareness

Issue date: 12 December 2011


A pilot project being carried out by UWE Bristol with At-Bristol uses new technology to empower individuals to monitor their own health and environment to help them better understand their own health issues.

The pilot study,http://bodytrack.org/, is being carried out by Illah Nourbakhsh, a Professor of Robotics from Carnegie Mellon University in the US, who is visiting UWE Bristol on a sabbatical, in collaboration with At-Bristol. The pilot is funded by HEAT@UWE, an EPSRC-funded programme of activities which aims to bring together different disciplines to solve issues by bridging the gaps in Health, Environment and Technology Research.

The bodytrack project pilot is following a group of individuals who have been given several specially adapted health and environmental monitoring devices. These off-the-shelf devices have been adapted with the manufacturer's permission to enable the data they record to be uploaded onto a personalised web page for each individual. The web interface collates and orders the data in an easily understandable format and is completely private to the individual. Data from different body systems and environmental factors can be analysed and compared and stored over a period of time, to enable the individual to understand better how their health responds to different environmental factors.

Amongst the devices currently being trialled is a sleep monitor which can measure brain waves and the levels of REM and deep sleep. The individual wears a headband at night which records the data and this is then uploaded to the web page. The other devices include an air quality monitor which can measure pollutants; an activity level monitor; an environmental monitor which measures the environment in the home including, levels of noise, light, heat etc; and a programme for taking pictures and recording the food and drink an individual is consuming.

Once uploaded the data from all these different systems can be looked at together and separately allowing the individual to get new insights in health issues related to their environment.

Professor Nourbakhsh explains, “In this initial study we are testing the technology and how user-friendly it is for individuals, as well as looking at whether individuals can derive benefit from having this data. By collating the different stream of data, puzzling health issues such as food allergies and sleep problems, can be tracked by the individual. Often the data will help them to pinpoint more accurately cause and effect, or offer insights into health issues. Because several streams of data are included it is possible to see better how individuals react to and are affected by their environment. For example some health reactions may be caused by the interplay of two factors, such as eating a particular food late at night may affect sleep patterns.

“Our research focus is on using technology to empower individuals. The devices we are using have been adapted with the manufacturers' blessing and our project enhances the value of these products for the individual. Empowerment could be measured in giving individuals more confidence to use technology and it could also be by empowering them to manage their own health using better information. We also want to make sure that the technology we design has a beneficial effect on people. For example it is my belief that better and more accurate data will help people manage their health better, but we need to test this belief and ensure that we actively design systems that benefit people.”

Katy Nehammer, At-Bristol's Informal Learning Manager, commented, “It's great for At-Bristol to be a part of this exciting project and to be able to help with UWE's research. We work with UWE Bristol on a number of projects, normally with things we're developing, so it's brilliant to be able to help the other way round too and to enable a project like this to happen.

She adds, "At-Bristol, as the friendly face of science in the city centre, is acting as the common meeting ground for the researchers and the participants of the study. We're really looking forward to bringing the results to our visitors in our Meet the Expert series in At-Bristol in 2012."

The initial pilot in Bristol will report back in January, when those taking part will relate how the use of the devices has changed their perspective on using technology and on their health. Two further pilots will take place in Pittsburgh and San Francisco, and the overall long term goal is to offer instructions online for modifying the off-the-shelf devices, along with the web tools to save and collate the data.

Professor Illah Nourbakhsh, of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, is working with Professor Alan Winfield and both the Science Communication Unit and Bristol Robotics Lab, at UWE Bristol. He is on sabbatical along with his wife Marti Louw who is also working with the Science Communication Unit at UWE Bristol. Marti Louw, an expert on the design of informal science learning experiences from the University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments, is lecturing on the MSc in Science Communication at UWE Bristol as well as carrying out a number of research projects in science communication.

Marti Louw says, “Understanding how and why people engage with and learn about science outside of formal settings such as schools is essential if we want to encourage more broad-based public awareness, interest and understanding of science. My research looks specifically at ways we can use new and emerging media technologies to foster diverse kinds of public-science interactions in contexts such as museums, parks, libraries, community programmes and online. Being at the Science Communication Unit at UWE Bristol has provided great insights into the progressive ways that the UK is developing and supporting various modes of public engagement with science.”

Professor Nourbakhsh has been working on a book about 'Robot Futures' as well as a number of other projects with colleagues at UWE Bristol.

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