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Mobile health team explores new self-tracking technology

As the movement grows, researchers see ample opportunities to study and improve human health

woman running
Self-monitoring technologies offer insights into a person’s daily life via mobile devices that collect data on exercise and movement. (Photo/Roadworks Girls)

In the days following the late-August earthquake in Napa, a high-tech manufacturer called Jawbone analyzed sleep data from thousands of users of its UP wristband, a device that monitors physical activity.

The company used the data to produce a map showing exactly what time people were jolted awake on the night of the quake, based on their distance from the epicenter — information of great potential importance to public safety and emergency response agencies.

The wake-up map is a recent example of the promise of massive amounts of personal data for the expanding field of mobile health (mHealth).

Mobile devices collect personal data

Dubbed the quantified self (QS) movement, the rapid rise of self-monitoring technologies offers insights into a person’s daily life via wearable and mobile devices that collect data about exercise, movement, heart rate and other observations. But self-monitoring also has implications of significant value for health researchers and clinicians, said Donna Spruijt-Metz, director of the mHealth Collaboratory, a program of the USC Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research that was recently established to drive advances in mHealth.

That’s why the mHealth Collaboratory hosted the Quantified Self Los Angeles (QSLA) Show & Tell Meetup in August. It was one of 112 QS meetup groups around the world, loosely organized by California-based Quantified Self.

“The tools that self-monitoring enthusiasts and companies are developing will be a key part of mHealth progress at USC and other research institutions,” said Spruijt-Metz, adjunct associate professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and of psychology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “The mHealth Collaboratory is here to get scientists, business people and the innovative-user community talking together and inspiring each other to develop disruptive new mobile health solutions.”

It’s just the beginning

Existing self-monitoring products, such as sensor-packed wristbands, typically work in sync with computer or smartphone apps. They track and analyze objective data such as exercise and activity, geographical movement, calories and sleep patterns. But that’s just the beginning, said QSLA meetup organizer Ernesto Ramirez, a Ph.D. candidate in a joint program on public health at the University of California, San Diego and San Diego State University.

“The quantified self technologies present endless possibilities from a public health standpoint for collecting data and insights for public health research and interventions,” Ramirez said. “To collect data on this scale through traditional methods would be prohibitively expensive or impossible.”

The technology will empower clinicians, who will be able to more accurately track and assist the health conditions of individual patients with a range of conditions, including chronic issues such as diabetes and heart disease, Spruijt-Metz said.

At the same time, researchers will be able to easily gather high-quality data from hundreds or thousands of participants that could speed the development of new drugs or other health interventions.

Personal characteristics

Approximately 25 self-trackers attended the QS meetup, including researchers and self-tracking application developers. Such early adopters are important to USC researcher Gillian O’Reilly, a Ph.D. candidate in the division of health behavior research in the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine.

O’Reilly is currently conducting research to identify personality characteristics associated with enthusiastic and diligent self-monitoring.

“Not everyone likes the idea of self-tracking, and some people are suspicious of sharing that data with researchers,” O’Reilly said. “My goal is to understand the barriers and develop interventions that could motivate people to stick with it.”

Support for the mHealth Collaboratory is provided by a grant from the USC Research Collaboration Fund offered through the USC Office of Research, with additional support from the USC Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research, the Institute for Creative Technologies and the Southern California Clinical and Translational Science Institute.

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Mobile health team explores new self-tracking technology

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