Technology at the Dinner Table

January 2, 2013

Andrea Parker, a newly appointed assis­tant pro­fessor of per­sonal health infor­matics and human-computer inter­ac­tion, believes in the power of using tech­nology to pro­mote health and well­ness among low-income minority populations.

“Tech­no­log­ical inno­va­tions in health have the ability to facil­i­tate col­lec­tive mobi­liza­tion and sup­port behavior change in a great number of people,” she explained.

Parker’s exten­sive body of research bears this out: in 2009, for example, she designed a mobile game called OrderUp! in which a dozen low-income African-Americans in a south­west Atlanta com­mu­nity assumed the role of a server in a neigh­bor­hood restau­rant. The goal of the game, Parker said, was for par­tic­i­pants to serve their vir­tual cus­tomers as quickly and health­fully as possible.

In a paper on the health impact of playing mobile games, Parker revealed that OrderUP! shifted user per­cep­tion of what con­sti­tutes a healthy meal. The fun and easy-to-play game, she wrote, “helped par­tic­i­pants learn more about eating healthfully.”

Users, she added, “started to reassess their own behav­iors and began to see how they could make and eat healthier foods themselves.”

For another research project, Parker designed an appli­ca­tion that allowed some 40 mem­bers of the south­west Atlanta com­mu­nity to share text mes­sages doc­u­menting their eating habits. The mes­sages, she said, were visu­al­ized on a large touch screen dis­play appli­ca­tion installed in a local YMCA.

At the end of an exten­sive three-month study, Parker found that par­tic­i­pants had come to think of them­selves as com­mu­nity health advo­cates. “These kinds of tech­nolo­gies are not just helping people change their own habits, but they are also devel­oping par­tic­i­pants’ iden­ti­ties as advo­cates for change,” she explained. “It’s exciting to think about the influ­ence these people could have on their social networks.”

Prior to joining the North­eastern fac­ulty, Parker served as a post­doc­toral fellow in the Everyday Com­puting Lab at the Georgia Insti­tute of Tech­nology. She earned her doc­torate in human-centered com­puting from Georgia Tech in 2011 and her bachelor’s degree in com­puter sci­ence from North­eastern in 2005

“I feel like I’m coming home,” Parker said. “It’s def­i­nitely an honor and a priv­i­lege to be a pro­fessor where I began my aca­d­emic career.”

Parker will hold joint appoint­ments in the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence. She hopes to uti­lize her inter­dis­ci­pli­nary exper­tise, she said, to tackle urban health research projects in Boston’s Rox­bury and Jamaica Plain neighborhoods.

“I have a real pas­sion for helping the under­served and under­standing why these pop­u­la­tions dis­pro­por­tion­ately expe­ri­ence dis­ease,” Parker explained, noting her interest in col­lab­o­rating on long-term field studies with Elmer Freeman, director of urban health pro­grams in Bouvé.

By bringing the world of com­puter sci­ence to life through fun and engaging class­room lec­turers, on the other hand, Parker hopes to expose stu­dents to the vast pos­si­bil­i­ties of an ever-expanding field of research.

“I want to help stu­dents under­stand how to design sys­tems that can mesh with people’s values and con­nect with them on an emo­tional level,” she said.