Getting young people thinking active

For nearly a decade primary school children in the North East have learned about fitness and nutrition through Newcastle United Foundation’s Match Fit programme. Now, a digital civics project aims to enhance this six-week programme by using digital technologies to further increase the fitness and health awareness of primary school children.

Students taking part in Match Fit learn about nutrition and exercise, as well as taking part in extensive physical activity, all inspired by the fitness regime of Newcastle United’s footballers. takes this project one stage further by using sensors to measure the movement of the children to see just how active they are. Inexpensive fitness trackers report on step counts over the course of the programme to evidence behaviour change.

The goal of is to is to engage students with their own activity and nutritional data to enhance data literacy and help them learn about how health and fitness can be supported by technology. The data collected through the programme can also be used as an engaging educational resource by teachers; hopefully a more critical understanding of data provides students with the skills to be engaged digital citizens.

For more information please contact Andy Garbett.

What did you eat today?

Accessible and validation methods for collecting and assessing dietary information is critical to the many public health interventions. Traditionally, a nutritionist interview participants to capture what has been consumed in the previous 24 hours, and this is repeated several times to estimate average consumption. To conduct such interviews at scale requires large numbers of trained nutritionists, who use their expertise to probe for additional information which is often missed or forgotten. To analyse dietary information, each food and amount is then manually coded and entered into a database to produce the nutritional output, a process which is timely, expensive and can be prone to error.

Intake24 is a free multilingual online dietary capture and analysis tool which provides the same quality of data at a significantly lower cost. Based on the multiple-pass 24 hour recall method, the system enables participants to input all food and drink consumed, estimate portion size using visual guides, and review their input at each stage. The system has been designed to ask a series of prompt questions if food or drink items are considered missing, such as “did you have any butter on your toast?”

Intake24 automatically links to the food composition data and the weight of the food from the chosen portion size to calculate the nutritional output. The data from dietary surveys using Intake24 is available online and can be downloaded straight into a spreadsheet for easy analysis.

For more information please contact Emma Simpson.

Supporting women who choose to breastfeed in public

Many new mothers stop breastfeeding early because they fear how people will react in public.

FeedFinder is a free mobile app that aims to support breastfeeding women by helping them find breastfeeding-friendly places in their community. Women can use FeedFinder to search for and view places on the map where other women have previously breastfed, and contribute their own experiences of a new or existing venue.

Designed and developed in collaboration with breastfeeding women, the review criteria in the app have been carefully crafted to meet women’s breastfeeding needs: comfort, hygiene, privacy and baby facilities. All of the data within the app has been contributed by the breastfeeding community.

Since its launch in 2013, FeedFinder has over 10,000 registered users adding reviews of more than 3,500 locations.

FeedFinder reviews constitute a unique dataset of women’s lived experiences of breastfeeding outside of the home; a useful resource for breastfeeding support networks and local public health initiatives. There is significant potential for organisations to be motivated to act on reviews from FeedFinder; for example, by contacting businesses with negative comments while commending those receiving consistently good ratings.

For more information please contact Madeline Balaam or Emma Simpson.

Debate the future of Newcastle’s parks

Newcastle’s parks and allotments are facing big changes, but local people are being brought into the discussion.

Open Lab is working with Newcastle City Council to hold workshops and online discussions that include residents, allotment holders, the business community, local charitable groups, friends of parks and other interested parties. These conversations are centred around what activities a charitable trust could support, where the money should come from, what role volunteers and communities should play, and how decisions should be made.

The consultation comes after the council announced plans to transfer the city’s parks and allotments to a new charitable trust. Since 2010 the council’s parks budget has been cut by 91% and it is now looking for a new way to fund their maintenance and operation.

In addition to the council’s own consultation, Open Lab are running workshops across the city, with a mix of morning and evening sessions, to allow as many people as possible to take part.

“The people who use the city’s parks and green spaces are best placed to give their opinions about how they’re run and managed,” explained Clara Crivellaro, who is leading the project for Open Lab. “These workshops will provide opportunities for people to come together to examine aspects of the council’s proposal and proactively contribute ideas for parks and allotments across the city.”

The workshops are being complemented by Twitter discussions, hosted each Wednesday at 7pm by @NCLTalkParks using the hashtag #NewcastleParks. Each of the four hour-long debates will focus on a different question relating to the future of Newcastle’s parks.

The Twitter discussions will be facilitated by Dan Lambton-Howard, who said: “Twitter provides a fantastic opportunity for people to have their say without having to attend a public meeting or workshop. Anyone with a Twitter account can join in the debate, and can already start having their say by using the hashtag #NewcastleParks.”

Clara added: “The variety of ways that people can get involved in this consultation exercise is a great example of what Open Lab is all about – using digital technology to empower local communities and engage them in decision making.”

Open Lab’s consultation will run until 6 April, and more information can be found at the Let’s Talk Parks website. The council will use the ideas collected through the discussions and through its own consultation to develop a business case for transferring control of the parks to a charitable trust.

Cllr Kim McGuinness, cabinet member for culture and communities at Newcastle City Council, said: “Open Lab at Newcastle University have come up with imaginative ways to deliver online material and informal face-to-face workshops that will help people think about the matters being raised. Technology and social media play a big part in Open Lab’s work – as they look to get people to think outside of the box, and express their views and thoughts about the prospects of a charitable trust.

“We hope this fresh approach will attract a broad cross section of the public and allow people to participate on their own terms in person or via technology. We really want people to engage and share their thoughts, ideas and feelings about the future of the city’s parks.”

For more information, please contact Clara Crivellaro.

Cycling in the city

After nearly a year of workshops, community consultations and research interviews, MyPlace researchers finalised their ‘Cycling in the City’ report. The main aim was to explore the potential of digital tools for those new to cycling in Newcastle upon Tyne. Rachel Clarke, Wilbert den Hoed and Pete Wright report on the use of social technology to increase confidence among new cyclists and the discovery of new routes.

The report outlines two phases of a design study to explore the potential for digital technology to support local cycling knowledge for new cyclists within the city of Newcastle upon Tyne. Our purpose was to understand how new cyclists describe particular preferences for routes, their technology use and how they plan journeys to support confidence when choosing rides.

We found perceptions of route finding were part of a much wider ecology of activities involving formal and informal training and confidence building. All cyclists described the desire to find new routes, as driven by changes in circumstance, including ageing, health, family and retirement. The impetus to explore was important for people to continue to cycle but depended on geographical, embodied and technical knowledge to guide decision- making. The technology used to support such activity included a range of devices and platforms but focused on connecting and compiling information to build confidence in dealing with issues of safety, complexity and uncertainty. While some people also described their use of fitness tracking devices, others reported using technology to aid distraction and curate the sensory and social experiences associated with cycling. Technical and improvised work-arounds to connect, compile, make-sense of and accommodate the lack of specific localised knowledge of available routes were also reported.

We conclude with possible ways to further develop integrated mobile phone and web platforms, that capitalise on local grass-roots knowledge and sharing of places and routes while respecting the diversity with which new cyclists experience routes. We suggest connecting with existing platforms that support social rides and route discovery to encourage opportunities for curation around a broader set of search terms such as feelings of freedom, views and satisfaction associated with wellbeing rather than searches determined by efficiency, safety and fitness could support greater confidence for new cyclists.

For more information please contact Wilbert den Hoed. This post was originally published on the MyPlace website, where you can also view the full report. MyPlace is a project to explore issues around mobility and place, with a particular focus on age friendly cities, and fits within the wider digital civics theme of digital local democracy and community.

Open source, open data, Open Lab

Open source sensors developed at Open Lab, Newcastle University, are behind the largest study of physical activity ever conducted.

Biobanks are becoming an increasingly important tool in medical research, offering an opportunity to study human health on a massive scale. Since 2007 UK Biobank has collected data about the genetic and biological information of half a million volunteers. They provided blood, urine and saliva samples and detailed information about their health, so that researchers can investigate possible genetic links to major illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

Since its foundation UK Biobank has expanded to collect data on other areas as well, including diet, bone structure and physical activity. To measure activity UK Biobank uses sensors, worn on the wrist for a week, that measure the movements of participants. These sensors were designed by Open Lab.

This has been the biggest physical activity study in history. 103,712 people wore the sensors, contributing a total of 2,000 years’ worth of movement data. This data can be used to investigate the impact of physical activity on health. Previous studies relied on self-reporting by participants, but Biobank’s new physical activity dataset offers much more accurate information.

“Large-scale studies are required to reliably understand the causes and consequences of disease,” said Dr Aiden Doherty from the University of Oxford. “UK Biobank’s combination of activity, imaging, genetics, and clinical databases, will soon help us better understand physical activity and its health consequences.”

The study used AX3 acceleration sensors that were designed in Open Lab and manufactured by Axivity Ltd, a Newcastle University spin-out.

“It’s actually a relatively simple device, in many ways just like your average wearable fitness tracker but with the capability to store the raw unprocessed data on the device,” explained Patrick Olivier. “However, key to the success of this project was the low cost of the device, compared to commercially available alternatives, and that we were able to adapt the device programming interface to UK Biobank’s central database of participant contact information so that the right device was sent to the right person, allowing us to link it to the other data they provided on their behaviour and health.”

Open Lab also helped to analyse the data collected by the sensors. The Biobank data will be available for use by researchers around the world, as Dr Tim Peakman, Deputy Chief Executive Officer for UK Biobank, explained.

“A huge amount of work has gone into reaching this milestone,” he said. “Including setting up and sending out thousands of devices, retrieving and downloading their data and checking its integrity, and addressing the many challenges of processing this data, which is now available for other researchers to request by making an application to the UK Biobank team.”

Not only is the data open to other researchers, but the sensors themselves are open source, meaning that other studies could exactly replicate the design.

Professor Nick Wareham, Director of the MRC Epidemiology Unit, said: “UK Biobank has redefined what is possible in the field of physical activity epidemiology; it is truly a game changer, effectively dispelling the myth that objective monitoring cannot be done at this very large scale.

“This development not only makes it possible to robustly examine associations and interactions between activity, diseases, environmental factors and genetics, it also paves the way for stronger surveillance systems of physical activity at the global level.”

The project involved researchers from Newcastle University, the University of Cambridge, University of Oxford, University of Salford, and University of London, as well as UK Biobank. Development of the AX3 sensor was supported by funding from the Research Councils UK Digital Economy theme.

“Large Scale Population Assessment of Physical Activity Using Wrist Worn Accelerometers: The UK Biobank Study”

Written by Mark Sleightholm. For more information please contact Patrick Olivier.

Lab talk: Stephen Lock

Clinical Research Networks recruit participants for NHS clinical research projects, and Stephen Lock looks at ways to use technology to improve this process. He explores ways that a better use of technology can lead to patient-centred research delivery models.

Technology, transport and town hall meetings

As well as being Labour’s MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, Chi Onwurah is interested in both transport and digital technology. The intersection of these two areas falls within Open Lab’s digital civics research, and the potential for technology to transform transport is enormous.

Cycling in Newcastle

Having recently started cycling again, Chi is keen for Newcastle to become more cycle-friendly. She praised the efforts of the Council to promote cycling in Newcastle, and pointed out that the city is steep compared to many others in the UK, making it more difficult for cyclists.

However, in addition to more cycle lanes, and cycle lanes that do more to protect cyclists, Chi would like more awareness around cycling, such as bike maintenance and safety, explaining: “people are still quite astounded when I turn up on a bike, and I think normalising it would help.” This is perhaps an area where digital technology can help,

“I’d like to see better and clearer cycle routes, which are enforced, so you don’t get cars parking in them all the time,” she continued. “I don’t know why they often stick bollards in front of cycle routes, but it feels like you’re negotiating an obstacle course sometimes.”

Digital planning

Another obstacle course that needs negotiating is the planning process. In August Chi organised a Town Hall meeting in Gosforth to discuss the Council’s plans for Blue House roundabout, which were dropped after significant public opposition.

This meeting highlighted Chi’s point that people are most engaged with planning decisions when they disagree. She speculated that digital technology could offer a way of engaging people without first making them angry.

Making meetings inclusive is also important: the people who attended the Blue House roundabout meeting in August “didn’t have childcare or other care responsibilities at that time, and who knew about it, because we put out a few fliers, but I mainly tweeted about it.

“You need to have different ways of engaging with different demographics: those who work evenings, those who have childcare responsibilities, those who aren’t on the internet or don’t use it that much.”

Opening up an online platform for discussion of planning issues could help to balance the difficulties people may face in attending physical meetings, but this is then dependent on internet access. “I think there’s the potential for digital technology to play a really important role in engaging people,” Chi said, adding that she hadn’t yet “seen any really engaging or compelling applications that really do help us out”.

One example of success in this area of engagement is the games industry – “nobody ever has to pay people to play games” – and Chi hoped that this level of engagement could also be achieved in apps and platforms that encourage people to get involved in planning and local decision making.

Whether through games or anger, getting local people involved in planning decisions is a key aim for both Chi and Open Lab’s digital civics researchers. The Blue House roundabout controversy showed the crossover of planning, transport and technology that Chi feels so passionately about.

Helping young people find free condoms

Young people in the North East will be able to find places to access free condoms and sexual health information, thanks to an app generated using App Movement, an app-development platform developed as part of Newcastle University’s digital civics research.

The C-Card Condom Finder app allows users to find and review places they can use their C-Cards. C-Cards are available for free to anyone under the age of 25 across the North East, and give young people access to free condoms and sexual health information, with these services provided by a large number of participating outlets.

Mark Hedley, the C-Card Coordinator for Newcastle upon Tyne, explained:

“The C-Card Scheme is often the first experience young people have of accessing a service to discuss relationships and sexual health with a trained professional. Many young people coming along to C-Card outlets are not having sex yet but appreciate the opportunity to talk things through with an understanding member of staff and have access to free condoms as and when they need them.

“For young people the C-Card Condom Finder app will allow them to find out where their local C-Card outlets are and give them an opportunity to give instant feedback on how they felt they were supported whilst using their C-Card; outlets will then be able to use this information to influence service provision to meet the needs of all young people.”

The app was generated through App Movement, a platform developed by digital civics researchers at Newcastle University, which allows people to collaboratively commission and design their own apps. Anyone can begin by creating a campaign and gathering 150 supporters who can then collaboratively design and customize features of the app, including its name, the colour scheme and the criteria for rating locations. The app is then automatically generated by the platform and released on the Google Play Store and Apple App Store.

Using the App Movement platform meant that young people were involved in the actual design process of their app. This fits within the digital civics approach of using technology to empower citizens.

Andy Garbett is a digital civics researcher and developed the App Movement platform. He explained:

“The partnership between the C-Card scheme and our digital civics programme is a great opportunity to have a positive impact on the sexual health initiative in the North East and enable young people to be more actively involved in the delivery of their C-Card service.

“Our digital civics research focuses on enabling citizens to take a leading role in the provision of community services. The App Movement platform allows a bottom-up approach to commissioning mobile applications and supporting communities in sharing their experiences with others. The C-Card Condom Finder app is a great example of how service users can shape the design and delivery of the services they utilise.”

Although most areas in the UK have schemes to provide free contraception and sexual health advice to young people, these schemes are currently fragmented, and coverage varies from region to region. The C-Card Condom Finder app has the potential to provide a single network of free condom providers.

For more information please contact Andy Garbett.