How do you describe your lab to visitors? The Wellness Technology Lab at Northeastern University examines how digital technologies can be designed to achieve health equity, that is, fair opportunities for all populations to achieve wellness. We specifically focus on vulnerable and marginalized populations—those groups in society who disproportionately experience barriers to wellness and high rates of disease. Much of our work explores the challenges faced by low-socioeconomic status (low-SES) communities and racial and ethnic minority groups, given the higher rates of chronic health problems in these populations. Our research explores how preferences around and engagement with health technologies are impacted by the social determinants of health, that is, the social, cultural, and structural conditions in which people live, work, and age that impact their well-being.
|A lab meeting, with our touchscreen display showcasing an exercise-based game prototype.|
Our lab is interdisciplinary, drawing upon theories, methods, and findings from human-computer interaction, public health, and the social and behavioral sciences. We use a mixed-methods approach, drawing heavily upon ethnographic and design methods to understand health-related values, perspectives, and challenges and translate these findings into design implications—and ultimately novel systems that we evaluate through naturalistic studies.
Most of the technologies we create are social computing tools that connect families and communities, empowering them to collectively overcome the social determinants of health that act as barriers to wellness, and to address these barriers directly (e.g., through health activism).
What is a unique feature of your lab? Our work is made possible through the relationships we have built with local community organizations. We are privileged to work closely with organizations who serve vulnerable Boston-area communities on a daily basis. Since our lab started in 2013, we have partnered with 13 community organizations to engage residents in the design and evaluation of technologies for health equity. As such, much of the research we do happens outside of the physical space of our lab, in neighborhood settings. A key goal of our lab is to create innovative technologies that augment and expand the rich services and community relationships that local organizations make possible.
|A prototype of an exercise-based game that leverages activity data from Fitbits to encourage physical activity and social connectedness among Alzheimer’s disease caregivers.|
|Ph.D. students (left to right): Elizabeth Stowell, Yixuan (Janice) Zhang, Farnaz Irannejad Bisafar, and Herman Saksono.|
|A family creates a fitness dashboard for caregivers and children during a participatory design workshop.|
|A prototype of a system that uses narrative to support family reflection and goal setting around physical activity.|
How many people are in the lab, and what is the mix of backgrounds and roles? A strength of our lab is its interdisciplinarity, with lab members’ backgrounds bridging the computer, social, and health sciences. The lab is directed by Andrea Parker, who is an assistant professor in the Khoury College of Computer and Information Sciences and the Bouvé College of Health Sciences. Her training is in human-centered computing and computer science.
There are currently two personal health informatics Ph.D. students and two computer science Ph.D. students in the lab. We also enjoy hosting visiting doctoral students, who help infuse our group with new ideas and perspectives. For the 2018–2019 academic year, we have a visiting psychology Ph.D. student from Brandeis University; and in the past, a Ph.D. student in digital civics from Newcastle University was a visiting researcher. Doctoral students in the lab have a range of backgrounds, including computer science, electrical engineering, public health, and health informatics.
Our meetings are typically punctuated by laughter, which to us is a sign that we are doing the work we were meant to be doing.
Each semester, the doctoral-student projects are further supported by undergraduate and master’s student researchers from a variety of disciplines, including computer science, design, data science, and public health.
In the fall of 2018, there were five Ph.D. students, three master’s students, and four undergraduate students in the lab.
What is one feature of your lab that you could not do without? Laughter. A great aspect of our lab is that it is made up of a group of people who genuinely enjoy working together and the research that we have the privilege of doing. This means that our meetings are typically punctuated by laughter, which to us is a sign that we are doing the work we were meant to be doing.
|Members of the lab meet with other labs doing personal health informatics research at Northeastern University to envision ways that technology can encourage wellness in faith-based contexts.|
How would you describe how people interact in your lab? One thing that we value about our lab is the rich relationships we have formed. The students use their skill sets to support one another. When deadlines approach, lab members rally together to help one another with paper writing and reviewing, and are always eager to provide feedback on research ideas and challenges.
Students also assist with each other’s projects. This allows for the cross-pollination of ideas and helps expand students’ portfolio of research expertise.
|Lab members Farnaz Irannejad Bisafar and Elizabeth Stowell engage in a brainstorming session to explore ways of visualizing social media data on mobile phones.|
What is the one thing you see as most important about the work you do there? We do not do research for the sake of research. We are passionate about doing work that will have a positive impact on the communities we study. Toward this goal, we have a commitment to conducting interdisciplinary research for and with vulnerable and marginalized communities, in an effort to create novel tools that help to reduce persistent inequities in health.
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