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.”