Can mobile phones help people 'EatWell?'

February 17, 2010

Most people know the rules of healthy eating, but most of us might eat a little healthier if we were reminded. Now a researcher at Georgia Tech is testing using a mobile phone to help community members steer themselves away from that chocolate cake and toward the fruits and veggies. The research was presented at the Conference on Computer Supported Work held in Savannah, GA last week.

"I wanted to make a system that was able to harness the community-held expertise, not just bringing in outside expertise. With mobile phones, I saw an opportunity to use technology to make that information even more visible," said Andrea Grimes, Ph.D. candidate in the Georgia Institute of Technology's College of Compuing.

The system, known as EatWell, uses mobile phones to record and share audio stories with other members from their community. The idea is that people working together can encourage each other with their stories of how they've successfully overcome temptation in an effort to live a healthier lifestyle.

Grimes conducted her pilot study with 12 particpants from a working class background in Southwest Atlanta.

Grimes decided to create the system on a because she knew it was a pervasive device that is owned by people from all income levels. She also knew that people could leave messages much faster than typing into a desktop computer or into the mobile phone would allow.

"People talk about being engaged with the content in EatWell because they actually hear the emotion in people's stories," Grimes said. "They could hear the pride and excitement people felt when they tried a new smoothie recipe, or when this guy talks about trying out the veggie burger at Burger King and coming back later that day bringing his girlfriend."

Grimes said the research contained some surprising results. One was that people reported they felt a connection to others in the study, even though they didn't know the other participants and the transcriptions contained very little in the way of statements of encouragement or talk of collective action.

"Most of the research says that for you to have a strong thriving community there needs to be a lot of interaction between the community members. But from our study, we saw that people felt a sense of community even though there wasn't a lot of interaction," she said.

Grimes' next project, Community Mosaic, involves getting people to take photos of the different ways they are trying to eat healthy and caption them. The photos and captions will be displayed on a big screen at a community center.

"We're interested in seeing how displaying the content in this way that's publicly visible affects their interest in sharing. Will they want to see their pictures and strategies on the board, or will they be less likely to share out of fear of people judging them," said Grimes.

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