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Technology at the dinner table

Andrea Parker, a newly appointed assistant professor of personal health informatics and human-computer interaction, believes in the power of using technology to promote health and wellness among low-income minority populations.

“Technological innovations in health have the ability to facilitate collective mobilization and support behavior change in a great number of people,” she explained.

Parker’s extensive body of research bears this out: in 2009, for example, she designed a mobile game called OrderUp! in which a dozen low-income African-Americans in a southwest Atlanta community assumed the role of a server in a neighborhood restaurant. The goal of the game, Parker said, was for participants to serve their virtual customers as quickly and healthfully as possible.

In a paper on the health impact of playing mobile games, Parker revealed that OrderUP! shifted user perception of what constitutes a healthy meal. The fun and easy-to-play game, she wrote, “helped participants learn more about eating healthfully.”

Users, she added, “started to reassess their own behaviors and began to see how they could make and eat healthier foods themselves.”

For another research project, Parker designed an application that allowed some 40 members of the southwest Atlanta community to share text messages documenting their eating habits. The messages, she said, were visualized on a large touch screen display application installed in a local YMCA.

At the end of an extensive three-month study, Parker found that participants had come to think of themselves as community health advocates. “These kinds of technologies are not just helping people change their own habits, but they are also developing participants’ identities as advocates for change,” she explained. “It’s exciting to think about the influence these people could have on their social networks.”

Prior to joining the Northeastern faculty, Parker served as a postdoctoral fellow in the Everyday Computing Lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She earned her doctorate in human-centered computing from Georgia Tech in 2011 and her bachelor’s degree in computer science from Northeastern in 2005.

“I feel like I’m coming home,” Parker said. “It’s definitely an honor and a privilege to be a professor where I began my academic career.”

Parker will hold joint appointments in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences and the College of Computer and Information Science. She hopes to utilize her interdisciplinary expertise, she said, to tackle urban health research projects in Boston’s Roxbury and Jamaica Plain neighborhoods.

“I have a real passion for helping the underserved and understanding why these populations disproportionately experience disease,” Parker explained, noting her interest in collaborating on long-term field studies with Elmer Freeman, director of urban health programs in Bouvé.

By bringing the world of computer science to life through fun and engaging classroom lecturers, on the other hand, Parker hopes to expose students to the vast possibilities of an ever-expanding field of research.

“I want to help students understand how to design systems that can mesh with people’s values and connect with them on an emotional level,” she said.