Measuring behavior

Experiencing Measuring Behavior

Wednesday, 22 June, 2016

Coming back from my first Measuring Behavior (MB) conference, a number of colleagues asked me how it was - did I enjoy myself, and would I write  a blog about it? So here I am, overwhelmed by all the information I received during my two days at the conference, but clueless as to what to write about my experience. Where do I start, which things would I like to highlight, and what struck me the most?

It’s all data

Out of the dozens of oral papers, symposia, demonstration showcases and poster sessions, I chose to attend those sessions that focused on human behavior. I was struck by the extent to which non-intrusive measurements are used to measure human behavior: smartphones, Kinect cameras, wearables, wireless eye trackers, and FaceReader software, to name a few.

For a moment I was thrown back to my ‘We are data-experience’, where I became aware what it feels like to ‘become’ data and how much data ‘the world’ collects of me.

Keep on going

Terms such as big data, quantified self, digitized world, sensors, and lifelogging were buzzing through the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel in Dublin, where MB took place. Nowadays we can do so much with all kinds of technology; I became more and more aware of this at MB.

How great is it, for example, to be able to keep an eye on people with Alzheimer’s disease via a camera or wearable and to be able to alarm caregivers on time if a health risk is lurking? Or to assist these people with remembering what happened in their lives and was of great importance to them?

Another example: people who suffer from cardiovascular diseases (CVD) could benefit from the use of an app on their smartphone which supports them in rehabilitation. The app encourages these people to perform individually tailored activities in order to promote behavioral changes.

Studies that lead to improvements in the use of such methods and techniques should be encouraged. But also for people who are at the beginning of their lives, these kind of instruments are very useful.

Track and model infant faces

In the sessions about Human Measurement (psychology) I listened, among other, to Andreas Maroulis who told his listeners how ‘Baby FaceReader’ works. The tool was developed to be able to detect early signs of neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in babies and young children, and to study the parent-child interactions.

However, infant faces vary from adult faces in that they are smaller, rounder, have a considerable amount of subcutaneous fat, elastic skin, and often have little to no eyebrows. All this makes it more difficult to make a good face model. Facial coding of infant faces is still under developed, but already is indicating promising results. Automating the process of infant facial coding makes it much more unobtrusive, less time-consuming, and, consequently, less costly.


Lifelogging: that seems like fun!

The second day of MB got off to good start with the keynote talk by Cathal Gurring. I was impressed by his fascinating story about lifelogging: in a sense the ultimate “black box” of a human’s life activities. The true numbers about yourself come to the surface: what places you go to, how many times a day you’re taking the stairs, who you’re talking to, and everything you hear, write, see or say.

The camera used while lifelogging takes > 2500 pictures per day. Every detail is recorded. Additionally, lifeloggers can track health parameters such as blood sugar level, how many steps you take, number of calories you burn, what your weight is, and more.

A lot of data is gathered this way that can be useful for research and epidemiology. After his talk I was thinking: I am going to start lifelogging! When I was a child, I used to be very consistent in keeping a diary. I wrote down whatever concerned me. It helped me organize my thoughts and in a way also to empty my head, to shut down all kinds of stimuli, and to calm me down.

Yes, lifelogging seems like fun to me; more than that, it’s a great way to keep track of my own mental and physical health.

Developments in methods and techniques

Just like you, I’m aware that developments in methods and techniques occur quickly. Twelve years ago someone explained to me that in a few years, browsing on the internet would be possible on a smartphone. All I did was laugh hard: “you are kidding, right?” Look how normal that is for us nowadays! I can hardly remember how an old fashion phone looked like, one I could only make phone calls with. Where is this going to end?

As Barry Smith emphasized in his talk: in the present technological revolution, the pace of change is no longer stable and linear, rather it is accelerating and exponential.

A promising future

But it’s very good to notice that the exponential increase in technology provides promising ways to measure human behavior via wireless, non-intrusive methods, and in more detail than ever before. We can use all this information to enable better decisions.

Better decisions about the food we eat and the exercise we should take. Better decisions for where we might live or where to send our kids to school. Better decisions by our governments and policy makers when it comes to managing education, energy, infrastructure, and healthcare. And better decisions for business and enterprise when it comes to understanding customer needs and demands. It will contribute to a better quality of life. Let that be our mission.

So yes, I wrote a blog about this enjoyable, fun, inspiring, and memorable Measuring Behavior. And this was only about the human behavior part. Of course there were also very valuable sessions on measuring animal behavior!

The 10th edition was a success and I was honored to be part of it and to meet all these interesting people and listen to their stories and experiences.

Let’s meet again at the next one in Manchester in 2018!


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