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Healthy choices despite disparities

InSolution_CrisesAppInteractive health technologies are a hot topic these days. Between Nike’s FuelBand and mobile phone apps like LoseIt!, the world has come to realize that interactive computing has a lot to offer  the layperson in the way of managing her own health.

These new platforms were just starting to emerge when professor Andrea Parker began her career as computer programmer who happened to be interested in social activism. “It was very exciting, but I noticed that it sort of was being done with this implicit assumption that the opportunity to achieve a healthy lifestyle was equal for everyone,” she said.

Researchers were taking the “if we build it, they will come” approach without accounting for barriers that might be getting in the way for some underserved populations.

For instance, it’s not always just the lack of an app that prevents people from living healthfully. “In some neighborhoods parents don’t want their kids to go play outside because it’s not safe,” said Parker. “In some neighborhoods they’re not eating a balanced diet because the access to healthy foods is lower.”

As she began carving out her niche in the field, Parker realized she could use her skills to design programs that put not only the power of health in peoples’ hands, but also the power for change.

Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Photo by Brooks Canaday.

As a post-doctoral researcher at Georgia Tech, Parker developed tools for children to critically engage with advertising or for community members to inspire each other to eat more healthfully. Having joined the faculty at Northeastern’s College of Computer and Information Sciences this winter, Parker is reeling with ideas on how to apply the things she’s learned in new and bigger ways.

She has already begun to collaborate with Carmen Sceppa and Jessica Hoffman, both professors in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences. Sceppa and Hoffman are co-investigators on Healthy Kids, Healthy Futures (HKHF), a program aimed at preventing childhood obesity by supporting health promoting environments in the home, school, and community .

One component of HKHF is called Open Gym, and it provides a safe place for kids and their parents to engage in physical activity once a week. The idea is to encourage children to be active, but also for parents to model healthy behaviors. “But how do we encourage physical activity in that whole week in between when they come to Open Gym?” Parker asked.  As you might imagine, she thinks a solution lies in interactive technologies.

One idea she has is to give kids activity monitors to wear throughout the week which will wirelessly transmit data on how active they’ve been. The more active they’ve been, the more points they get toward unlocking games back at Open Gym.

This particular situation is uniquely complicated by the fact that there are two populations who respond to pretty different motivations, said Parker. The things that get an eight year old excited aren’t always the same things that get their parents revved. But one of the approaches that Parker has taken in previous studies is to engage the community in the development process itself. Involving users in the design of technologies can not only ensure that those technologies will have the components they are seeking, but users will also be more likely to want to engage with the technologies. “It can help provide a sense of ownership over the system,” said Parker.

“Her involvement in the Healthy Kids, Healthy Futures team is exciting to us,” said Sceppa. “Her expertise in information and communication technologies will be instrumental in creating long-lasting physical activity promotion opportunities for our families and the neighborhoods HKHF serves.”

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