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Last modified: Thursday, July 19, 2007

Informatics designs tools to promote health care, independent living

July 19, 2007

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- An Indiana University School of Informatics-led team is creating a digital toolkit that enables elders to maintain their privacy, while taking full advantage of home-based computing for their health and personal safety.

The project, which is funded by an $821,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, will construct a "living lab" with a select group of volunteers at Meadowood Apartments, a Bloomington retirement community. The researchers' initial designs will be used to perform user studies and evaluate the design method. The feedback from the elder users will enable improvements in the design and the design methodology.

"Our proposal addresses the acute privacy challenge of using ubiquitous computing in a home-based health care environment, where vulnerable populations risk enforced technology intimacy," said associate professor Jean Camp, an expert on privacy issues and how information technology affects individuals and society. "We will be looking at the physical, cognitive and social well-being of the participants."

Other researchers include assistant professors Kay Connelly and Kalpana Shankar, and Lesa Lorenzen-Huber, assistant professor in the IU School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation.

Ubiquitous computing is a form of human-computer interaction in which information processing is integrated into everyday devices such as personal digital assistants (PDA), cell phones, pagers and laptop computers. For example, a PDA might be used to help a person with diabetes record and compute their nutritional intake. Or it could be a device that helps caregivers monitor the activity of a disabled patient or ensure they are taking prescribed medications.

The use of so-called "ubicomp" technology does raises privacy issues, and that is one of the major thrusts behind the IU project.

"The intersection of ubicomp in the home, privacy concerns and elder care is an area that has not received much attention," said Connelly. "Existing projects want to use technology to determine when an elderly person needs to move into a more supervised setting. So by definition, they are introducing the technology before such a choice must be made. We contend that privacy must be a paramount concern before the technology is used initially."

The project also will monitor the routine activities of participants' daily lives.

"A variation from the usual routine could indicate a potential problem that if addressed in an early stage, can be kept from becoming a big problem, such as missing meals, or long periods of daytime napping that could be indications of medication effects or the early stages of depression," said Lorenzen-Huber.

The researchers will study different toolkit designs. One "visible" device could be a sensor mounted on the kitchen counter where the volunteer purposefully places a finger each morning before making breakfast. An "invisible" design might be to embed a sensor in a television remote control and measure the user's heart rate each time they use the remote.

In the second year of the three-year study, the team will develop a tool for participants to help them and their caregivers articulate their privacy concerns to designers. The final year of the study calls for the design of a home ubicomp system for two families and deploy them at their Meadowood apartments and evaluate their interaction over time.

"This final evaluation will lead to a new version of the framework and tools based on the lessons we learned the first two years," said Shankar.

Students in the School of Informatics and its Department of Computer Science also will get the chance to help the investigators evaluate and suggest modifications in the system.