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Mobile Data – Changing Lives

If you are ever in any doubt about the way in which the internet has the power to transform lives, then just take a look at the way in which apps are being used to provide big data approaches to solving health problems. Two such have hit the headlines in recent weeks, both collecting global data to aid in research.

The first, mobile game Sea Hero Quest, has been developed by dementia researchers in a bid to unlock the secrets of the early stages of dementia. The ability to navigate 3-D environments is often one of the first to be affected by dementia. The Sea Hero Quest game is designed not only to provide a useful benchmark but also to help to understand the way in which spatial awareness varies between people; thereby providing the groundwork for the development of a quick and easy early warning test for dementia.

Researchers say that the largest spatial navigation study to date comprised fewer than 600 volunteers and that the time taken in testing has in the past hampered the gathering of quantities of meaningful data. Dr Hugo Spires from UCL, one of the lead researchers in the project, told the BBC that “In my research team, I could only test about 200 people a year, and that’s working hard. But last night I tested 200 people in one minute with this game.”

The second app to hit the headlines was released in 2014. Originally designed as a way of helping people to overcome jetlag, the app also allowed users to update details of their sleeping patterns. This has enabled researchers to draw up a global picture of sleeping habits across gender, age and country.

With disrupted sleep having been identified as a contributor to a range of illnesses including type II diabetes and heart problems, understanding the interaction between our body clocks and sleep patterns is an important tool for researchers. For example, analysis of the data has already shown that those who spent the most time in natural sunlight tend to go to bed earlier.

Although it will be some time before a complete analysis of the data has been undertaken Cambridge University’s Dr Akhilesh Reddy said that app studies into sleep are “finding interesting correlations across the world we’ve never been able to do by putting people in sleep lab.” This is particularly important in view of the ‘global sleep crisis’ which is affecting all those who are pushing their body clocks to one side in response to societal pressure.

Helping ourselves

One of the beauties of collecting data via apps and mobile games is that it is tapping into activities which people are already undertaking. If we take a five minute break to play a game, then why not make it Sea Hero Quest; if we are looking for ways to overcome jetlag, then why not choose a research app rather than an internet search? While researchers are gathering and interpreting data, we can take well-being into our own hands by using online interactions to reduce the pressure on our own lives.

Do we really have to sit down at the end of a busy day and plough through all those phone messages from people wanting appointments? Is it really necessary for us to spend precious free time working on the accounts, sending out invoices from today’s patients and hoping that cheques arrive in time to bank them before the bills role in? And why do we have to spend hours preparing for tomorrow’s list, searching through the filing cabinets for patient data which we then have to file all over again the following night?

In fact is it any wonder that there is a global sleep crisis when work-life balance means that work pushes back way beyond the end of the normal working day? The good news is that online answers are available. We can offer online booking, we can transfer calls to a virtual assistant service, we can take payments electronically and we can electronically file patient records; all of which will free up ‘me time’ and help us to prepare for a decent night’s sleep.

The information which is being collected through mobile apps and games will help researchers in time to develop new understandings and new approaches and new treatments. We can all play our part by helping in research but we can also play our part by using the internet and technology solutions to look after ourselves.


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