Western Mail Profiles: Dr Parisa Eslambolchilar, Swansea University

‘New mobile app to help people take fitness in their stride’

Dr Parisa Eslambolchilar is a lecturer at the Computer Science department in Swansea University.

I am the leading researcher in Swansea in the CHARM project, which has been funded by the UK Research Councils’ digitaleconomy programme.

CHARM uses digital technologies as a means of providing people with feedback about their own and others’ wellbeing and lifestyle-related behaviours.

The three-year project, which started in September 2009, examines the potential for telling people what other people do – the so-called “social norm” approach – in an attempt to change individual practices and behaviours in socially desirable ways.

My team from Swansea, along with social scientists at Kingston Business School – Professor Rettie, Dr Burchell and Dr Harries – have developed an application (which cannot be named for user study purposes) for Android smart phones.

It aims to help people be more active in their everyday life.

Using the accelerometer inside the phone, the application measures a person’s physical activity throughout the day. It estimates the number of steps they have taken by looking at the spikes in the accelerometer readings caused by the person’s feet hitting the ground.

From these step counts, the application estimates mathematically the number of calories burned and the distance travelled.

It provides feedback not only about an individual’s physical activity but also how they compare to others.

A group of people can use the application on their phones and it allows each person to view not only their own step counts but also the average (the mean) step count within the group.

The application obtains the step counts of other users by using the internet connectivity available on Android phones to periodically talk to a central databaseheld at Swansea University.

Since the database knows everybody’s step counts, it can also compute the daily average of everybody’s step counts and send that back too.

The application runs continuously, all day, on the user’s phone. It can record step counts over many weeks and provides an easy way to view past step counts using a graph.

Using the graph, an individual user can tell whether they have historically been below or above the average of the group.

Although this application has been designed and tested to motivate sedentary people, it has strong potential to help people with obesity to monitor their health and motivate and increase their physical activity.

Wales has some of the highest rates of childhood obesity in the world and is the fattest nation in the UK with 57% of adults classed as overweight or obese.

We believe this application has the potential to save lives and reduce the financialstrain on health services.

To contact Parisa please email csparisa@swansea.ac.uk.  For more information about her work visit www.projectcharm.info.

This article first  appeared in the Western Mail‘s Health Wales supplement on the 15th August 2011, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.