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A social network to improve community health

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.”