Exploring a Culture of Health: Detecting Signals of Wellbeing

By Carolyn Graybeal July 2nd, 2014 at 2:41 pm | Comment

How can we leverage technology to monitor signals of wellbeing? (Image Shutterstock/ Oko Laa)

How can we leverage technology to monitor signals of wellbeing? (Image: Shutterstock/Oko Laa)

This post is part of Exploring a Culture of Health, a citizen science series brought to you by Discover Magazine, SciStarter and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, serving as an ally to help Americans work together to build a national Culture of Health that enables everyone to lead healthier lives now and for generations to come.

Imagine if everyday technology could transform how we manage our health and wellbeing? What if your phone could alert your doctor to a change in your behavior? Or what if grandma’s stove could tell you she is already up and about in the morning? It sounds complicated but as it turns out, it might simply be a matter of tapping into the data generated from everyday devices. Two independent groups in California are doing just this.

Using Mobile Technology to Help Youths with Mental Illness

At UC Davis behavioral scientists with the Early Diagnosis and Preventive Treatment (EDAPT) Clinic are embarking on a yearlong project to study whether mobile technology can improve treatment for young people who are in the early stages of psychotic illness. The EDAPT group has teamed up with Ginger.io a health data start-up to assess “users’ social, physical and mental health status”[1]. Through an app, users can actively input their daily symptoms, medication adherence, mood, and how they are coping, while information on their movements and daily social contacts, such as the number of incoming telephone calls and text messages, is gathered in the background. All of this data provides a patient and his or her clinical team with a finer resolution of that patient’s health profile.

A smartphone app that tracks signals of well being in youths with early stage psychosis (UCDavis EDAPT Clinic/Ginger.io)

A smartphone app that tracks signals of well being in youths with early stage psychosis (UCDavis EDAPT Clinic/Ginger.io)

“With this detailed level of data, our health care providers get a more complete picture of how their patients are doing – across multiple domains – in a way that may not be possible in a brief session,” explains Dr. Tara Niendam, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at UC Davis and Director of Operations for the EDAPT Clinic.

Having a record of this information enables the patient and the clinician to build links between experiences and symptoms. “Instead of relying on the patients’ memory, the clinician is able to look at the data and say, ‘Hey, I noticed that you had an upsetting conflict Tuesday and your mood was very low Wednesday. What happened?’ It empowers the patients who can learn to recognize his or her potential triggers,” says Dr. Niendam. The technology also gives clinicians information about their patients on a more immediate basis. “We quickly identify patients who have stopped their meds and can reach out to them about why, allowing us to identify issues with side effects or patient concerns more quickly,” explains Dr. Niendam.

And it works for patients too—by using mobile phone technology, adolescents are able to monitor their health and partner with their provider in a way that fits their lifestyle.


Tapping Smart Meters to Monitor Wellbeing

Just two hours south of UC Davis in the technology hub of Silicon Valley, the people at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation (PAMF) Innovation Center are examining ways to address the social health and wellbeing for the aging community. Their recent effort, LinkAges Connect, is exploring the potential for signal detection to help seniors continue to live independently, safely. One of the challenges to the aging population is their loss of independence, their increased loneliness, and the burden thals. The answer they came up with – tap into the smart meters infrastructure.

Smart meters are electronic devices used by utility companies to remotely monitor household consumption of basic utilities such as electricity, gas or water. These meters provide a constant data stream and over time can provide a picture of an individual’s typical home activity. “It is a non-invasive, non-intrusive way of detecting if grandma is okay,” says Tang. “When grandma wakes up and makes breakfast, there will be a spike in energy use. That information will be relayed through LinkAges Connect’s system to notify the family that grandma is up and active.” The system can even help detect if something is wrong. Increased energy use at night for example, could indicate that grandma is suffering from insomnia. Noticing a change, her caretaker would know to check in.

Using household utility usage data from smart meters to monitor well being of seniors (PAMF/LinkAges Connect)

Using household utility usage data from smart meters to monitor well being of seniors (PAMF/LinkAges Connect)

With the support of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), LinkAges Connect with be testing its system in the homes of seniors for more research and development. The UC Davis/Ginger.io study is also a recipient of RWJF funding.

“These two projects are testing whether we can leverage technology to help us, and the people who care for us and about us, track and understand changes in our behavior that are indicative of a change in health status,” explained Paul Tarini, Senior Program Officer at RWJF. “Making it easier to be mindful of our health will help us advance a Culture of Health.”

You don’t have to be enrolled in a specific study to contribute to health and technology research. Ginger.io app users can contribute to science by passively submitting their own information or enrolling in current research collaborations if eligible. There is also information for researchers interested in utilizing this technology in their work.

Many citizen science projects are taking advantage of sensors to collect and track data. AirCasting is a project that allows citizens to monitor air quality by combining a smartphone app and a DIY Air Monitor. Loss of the Night uses your cell phone camera as a sensor to monitor light pollution. Noise Tube turns your cell phone into an environmental sensor to collect data about noise pollution. These and many other similar projects can be found using the project finder at SciStarter, an online citizen science hotspot.

What are some ways you track your health? Does it affect your day to day choices? Do you have ideas for using existing technology or infrastructure to monitor or measure health? Leave a comment below.


Interested in a more active participation opportunity in a health related citizen science project? The UC San Francisco Health eHeart study is globally recruiting participants for their ‘electronic clinical research study’. This study examines lifestyle patterns and heart health to improve what doctors know about preventing and treating heart disease. Participants will be asked to complete eVisits (online surveys) and in some cases wear special heart sensors. If you have an internet connection, you can participate.

If learning about gene-environment interactions is in your DNA, Infinome might be of interest. Infinome is an open science experiment studying how genomics and behavior affect health and longevity. Participants submit genomic information, such as results from 23andMe, as well as health and behavioral monitoring data. The project is seeking participants to help them through beta testing.


[1] http://ginger.io/the-science/

Image Credits

UCDavis/ginger.io and Palo Alto Medical Foundation


Citizen Science on the Radio: WHYY Features Dan Duran’s Drexel Elaphrus Beetle Hunt

By Lily Bui - Executive Editor June 27th, 2014 at 1:50 pm | Comment

Image credit: CC-BY Charles Lindsey via Wikimedia

Image credit: CC-BY Charles Lindsey via Wikimedia

This week on The Pulse and SciStarter’s segment about citizen science, producer Kimberly Haas speaks with Dan Duran, who is running a project that monitors the elusive Elaphrus beetle to monitor stream health.

Read WHYY’s related blog post to learn more. Here’s an excerpt:

Dan Duran, assistant professor in Drexel University’s Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science, has just embarked on a search for one of those indicator species. The marsh ground beetle, which also goes by the Latin name for its genus, Elaphrus, is found along muddy stream banks in temperate regions like ours. Duran says it’s an effective indicator species because it’s adversely affected by run-off, like road salts and agricultural chemicals–that make it into a stream without being visible.

Duran’s goals are to chart where Elaphrus is found in the waterways of the Philadelphia region, and to track changes to their range over time. But ours is a watery habitat, so how will it play out – one researcher vs. how many hundreds of streams? The answer, of course, is citizen scientists.

Here’s where you can help. If you’re a citizen science researcher, project manager, or participant in the PA, NJ, or DE areas, we want to hear from you! If you have an interesting story to share about a citizen science project or experience, let us know. Send your stories for consideration to Lily@SciStarter.com.


WHYY (90.9 FM in Philly) Friday on-air schedule:
6-9 a.m. – Morning Edition
9-10 a.m. – The Pulse
10 a.m. to 12 p.m. – Radio Times
10 a.m. following Sunday – The Pulse (rebroadcast)

Secchi App: Tracking Phytoplankton with the Push of a Button [GUEST POST]

By Rae Moore June 26th, 2014 at 10:22 pm | Comment

Help scientists monitor the phytoplankton population in oceans with a secchi disk and the secchi app.

Want more marine-themed citizen science projects? We’ve got you covered!

Screen shot of the secchi app

Screen shot of the secchi app

Marine ecosystems, like all ecosystems, are made of complex food webs. The most abundant part of a marine food web is microbial plankton. Phytoplankton are very important, as they are responsible for about half of all photosynthesis on the planet; they absorb half of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and produce half of the oxygen we breathe. Global warming and climate change are unfortunately putting phytoplankton numbers in danger, as phytoplankton populations are negatively affected by warming waters. When the water warms, it creates layers of temperature, so there is no cycling of nutrients as there is in less-layered waters.

To track these changes, a team of scientists led by Dr. Richard Kirby at Plymouth University, have created a mobile app called the Secchi App.  The app, along with a homemade secchi disk, can be used to measure the turbidity of the water.   These measurements give an estimate of the amount of phytoplankton in the water, and the app attaches GPS information to the data.  Users must select their GPS location first, but if network connectivity is low (as it often is in the middle of the ocean), the app will be able to upload data once they get in range of a stable connection.

Testing the waters with a white secchi disk.

Testing the waters with a white secchi disk.

Using a secchi disk is very straightforward: a 30-cm white disk is attached to a 50 meter-long string and lowered into the water until it cannot be seen anymore, then the length of the string is recorded (the length of the string at this point is called the ‘secchi depth’). For the app, there are no restrictions on what the secchi disk can be made of, as long as it’s painted white, weighed down with a 200 gram weight, has a diameter of 30 cm, and kept clean for maximum visibility. The ideal time to collect data is between 10 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon. Users also have the option to input the temperature of the water, take a photograph, add notes, and input their boat name. These details, especially the temperature, would help scientists understand the context of the secchi depth even more.

Dr. Kirby says this app is for “seafarers  and scientists.” [1]  Anyone with a boat, a secchi disk, and a phone can participate. Since the ocean is too large for data collection by one team, they need your help. Collecting and inputing data for the Secchi app takes less than five minutes, which gives users the opportunity to collect multiple data points in a small amount of time.

When users send their measurements to the database, scientists like Dr. Kirby can use them to accurately predict the productivity of phytoplankton in the ocean. Scientists can also track if algal blooms are imminent. Algal blooms, commonly known as red tides, are characterized by a spike in phytoplankton populations. Red tides are usually harmful, as they cloud the water and starve the species underneath by preventing photosynthesis. When the red tide is over, the phytoplankton sink to the bottom of the sea to be eaten by bacteria. When the bacteria eat the phytoplankton, this robs the local area of oxygen, creating a dead zone. Balance is key: too many phytoplankton in the water is just as harmful as too few.

When you use the secchi app and send your data, you are helping scientists track of the number of phytoplankton in the ocean. These numbers can be used to further investigate what other factors cause the rise and fall of phytoplankton numbers. Since phytoplankton are such an important part of the marine food web, their numbers affect the populations of many other species. Participants are helping to track phytoplankton as well as many keystone species. You could be a part of something much larger.

Editor’s Note: The bottom image has been changed to show a white marine secchi disk, which is the proper disk for this type of project. In addition, the quote from Dr. Kirby has been referenced appropriately.  We apologize for the errors.

[1] From FAQ section.

Plankton Pundit
How to make a Secchi disk (Page 5 of guide)

Image credits: Dr. Richard Kirby

Albany Jacobson Eckert is working toward a BS in Marine Vertebrate Biology at Stony Brook University. She hopes to conduct oceanographic research in the near future. Her blog, marinebiomondays.wordpress.com, is geared toward promoting scientific literacy and explaining concepts behind recent scientific headlines.

Digital Fishers: Data from the Deep, Judgment from the Crowd

By Ian Vorster June 24th, 2014 at 10:44 am | Comment

Save the sablefish (also known as black cod) and help scientists by counting the fish in video clips.

Want more marine-themed citizen science projects? We’ve got you covered!

Sablefish on soft bottom habitat.

Sablefish on soft bottom habitat.

Scientists call it Anoplopoma fimbria, fishers might know it as the sablefish, while some chefs call it the Black Cod. Found hovering just above the muddy North Pacific seabed, you may have enjoyed one down at the Moby Dick restaurant or whatever your favorite seafood restaurant is called. The sablefish—a yummy opportunistic feeder known for its buttery taste has been harvested from US waters since the late 1800s.

In Alaska, heavy foreign fishing depleted the sablefish stocks through the seventies until the US took control of the waters in 1976 and phased out foreign fishing. After that, the fishing season began to shorten and the number of fishers actually increased. When this happens a fishery produces a lot of poor quality fish—the outcome is an unstable stock. In 1995, conservation managers implemented a program that sought to more strictly regulate the Alaska commercial fishery; it set limits for each fisher, but within a longer season. This decreased the harvest of immature fish, which meant those fish had a good chance to reproduce at least once.

Now a citizen science program called Project Digital Fishers needs your help, and it may keep the sablefish on the table at the Moby Dick. It is a project that enlists public support to run a second trial for researchers, and for computer scientists as well. For the latter, an undergraduate student at the University of Victoria has developed an algorithm that can “count” fish. He will use this campaign to ground truth his software. This video on YouTube shows this in action.

As researchers continue to monitor the resource, they hope to inform careful management of the stock. Jodie Walsh, the research coordinator for the Center for Global Studies at the University of Victoria in Canada, says, “A research group at the Marine Science Institute (Institut de Ciènces del Mar) in Barcelona, Spain, investigates biological rhythms in various species around the world.  By better understanding species behavior they hope to help in marine resource management and provide advice to improve fishing practices. And Carolina Doya, a PhD student working with Dr. Jacopo Aguzzi, uses NEPTUNE Canada cameras to study biological rhythms of fish in Barkley Canyon.” Counting fish in the field of view of the camera, and using specialized statistical tools, will enable her to see if fish movements and/or behavior can be predicted in relation to known natural cycles.

When an experiment returns a broad variety of results, researchers typically have to run the numbers again, which in this instance means they have to review the film footage of a submarine transect once more, while counting the number of Black Cod seen in a specified time. The result will be punched into a formula and extrapolated out for a region or field—which produces an accurate estimate of the number of fish in a population. So now you can contribute to real science—compare apples to apples (or in this case sablefish to sablefish) by counting the sablefish exactly as the research crew is doing in their labs. This will save an enormous amount of time and money, and it will contribute to both computer and environmental research.

Screenshot of Digital Fishers page.

Screenshot of Digital Fishers page.

You have to create an account, and the controls of the digital interface take a bit of getting used to.  After a few awkward attempts, I got the hang of it, had learned to identify the species and was counting for the A team. The website says you only have to count for 15 seconds, but each video clip runs for almost a minute. After those first few attempts I settled down and actually began to anticipate seeing a sablefish—I counted as many as six in a 60 second clip, and sometimes none appeared. To beat the first level you have to complete 10 ‘annotations’ or views, but to advance to the third level you have to complete 24!

Digital Fishers is currently counting sablefish, but Walsh says, “We have also looked at crabs, Mapping Seafloor, Trawling, thornyhead rockfish and deep-sea ecosystems, or sometimes we just show some of the video that has been collected and ‘digital fishers’ annotate many other species in our general campaigns.” Digital fishers hail from Canada, US, Spain, France, Germany, South Africa, Oman, Switzerland, Colombia, Czech Republic, Australia, Iceland, Italy, so anyone can compete. (The sablefish is found in UK waters as well—there it is called the blue cod, bluefish, candlefish or coal cod, and in Canada it’s known as the coalfish, beshow or skil.) The sablefish project will likely run through July.

How to measure a count
NOAA FishWatch

Top Image: NOAA Photo Library
Bottom Image: Digital Fishers/University of Victoria

Ian Vorster has a MS in Environmental Communications and most recently served as director of communications at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. Prior to that he worked in the health communications field. Ian has served as a designer, writer, photographer, editor and project leader in the field of science, and now works freelance in a blend of these roles. You can see more of Ian’s work at dragonflyec.com.

See a Seahorse, Save a Seahorse

By Sheetal R. Modi June 23rd, 2014 at 10:13 am | Comment

Citizen scientists can use an iPhone app or online tool to log seahorse sightings to help seahorse conservation.

Want more marine-themed citizen science projects? We’ve got you covered!

Weedy pygmy seahorse.(Hippocampus pontohi)

Weedy pygmy seahorse.  (Hippocampus pontohi)


With the head of a horse, the tail of a monkey, and the belly of a kangaroo, seahorses look almost like mythical creatures, and their unique abilities make them no less fantastical. Seahorses have eyes that operate independently of one another, don skin that changes color, and exhibit a reversal of gender roles when it comes to pregnancy. Unfortunately, these interesting fish (seahorses are indeed fish!) are a threatened species as a consequence of habitat destruction and overexploitation. One of the challenges seahorses conservationists face is the lack of information on the 48 or so different varieties of seahorses, their populations and where exactly in the world’s oceans they live. Through Project iSeahorse, an online citizen science project with an accompanying iPhone app, users can turn their vacation seahorse sightings into important data for conservation efforts.

“iSeahorse sightings have already increased our understanding of where seahorses live,” says Tyler Stiem, communications manager of Project Seahorse, the marine conservation organization that runs iSeahorse. “Several species have been found by citizen scientists where they were either thought to be extremely rare or not even exist based on published literature. Knowing where a species lives is the first key to protecting its populations.” Just last month, two divers spotted a lined seahorse in Nova Scotia and used iSeahorse to report this rare occurrence in Canadian waters.

iSeahorse app

iSeahorse app

Users can create a simple account with iSeahorse and log in to add seahorse observations. The project asks for information regarding the type of seahorse encountered, when and where the sighting occurred, and the habitat it was found in. Users can also upload any photos taken to help identify the species observed. The iPhone app is also a great educational tool adorned with beautiful photos for users to learn more about the varieties of seahorses and their tell-tale characteristics. For example, the weedy pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus pontohi; top right image) found in Indonesian waters is a mere half-inch in length whereas the pot-bellied seahorse (Hippocampus abdominalis) can grow up to over a foot tall and has a protruding tummy, as its name suggests.

Conservationists recognize seahorses as a flagship species–a species that incites public interest to understand and protect an ecosystem. Likely due to their cute, cartoon-like appearances and quirky lifestyles, seahorses can be used to attract attention to marine environments in jeopardy that might otherwise be ignored. “Flagship species are also a surrogate measure of the health of their ecosystem, as a healthy ecosystem will harbor healthy populations,” Stiem explains. “If high levels of pollution or habitat degradation occur, seahorses will not survive. Therefore healthy seahorse populations mean healthy coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrass beds, all of which are important components of coastal ecosystems worldwide.” In addition, scientists perceive seahorses as a lens into better understanding of reproductive biology, since males uniquely carry offspring through the gestation period, and this poses another case for protecting the oceans’ biodiversity.

Project Seahorse also hopes to raise environmental awareness through their citizen science project and encourage practices that help protect the earth’s marine ecosystems. Seahorses are often exploited for their use in traditional medicines and as souvenirs.  In addition, shrimp farming and trawling affect the seahorse population and contribute to habitat destruction. According to data from Project Seahorse, every year approximately 2.2 million seahorses are caught in trawl nets, and one pound of shrimp procured for human consumption reflects ten pounds of other marine organisms unintentionally ensnared. The more participation projects like iSeahorse gain, the better chance that legislation can be drafted to promote better harvesting practices to protect marine life.

So if you’re headed for a beach vacation this summer, consider downloading the iPhone app or creating an iSeahorse account to log seahorse sightings that you encounter!

Resources: Project Seahorse

Images: Top image courtesy of Wendy Hoevenaars/Guylian Seahorses of the World; bottom image courtesy of Sheetal R. Modi.

Sheetal R. Modi does research for a biotech start-up in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has a PhD in Biomedical Engineering where she focused on the evolution of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. When she’s not tinkering with microbes, she enjoys science communication and being outside.