DREAM on - Penn State service aids research through IT

Stephen Wilson had a problem.

Wilson, an associate professor of psychology at Penn State, studies addictive and negative behaviors affecting health, specifically nicotine addiction in smokers. Although Wilson could monitor smokers in a lab, he found it difficult to accurately study their real-life smoking behaviors outside the lab. 

“We were trying to recreate what smokers face outside in the real world, but it’s a challenge because there’s a lot of constraints in a lab,” Wilson said. “To really take the research to the next level, I became very interested in trying to study cravings and other factors in a natural setting.”

Wilson found his solution in something most people carry every single day.

Wilson contacted Dynamic Real-Time Ecological Ambulatory Methodologies (DREAM), a service within Penn State’s Survey Research Center that offers researchers new ways to collect data outside the lab through mobile technology.

Established in 2011, DREAM was created as a tool for researchers interested in “ambulatory assessments,” a growing research method that involves studying subjects in real time in their natural surroundings.

To collect this data, researchers work with DREAM programmers to develop mobile applications and surveys to meet individual research needs. Rather than having participants answer questions in a laboratory setting, researchers can administer these surveys via cellphones at random times throughout the day over a longer period of time.

According to Joshua Smyth, academic director of DREAM and professor of biobehavioral health and medicine, collecting data through these mobile technologies can have multiple advantages over standard lab-based research.

“I think one of the big advantages is it untethers a person from your research space,” Smyth said. “It allows us to collect information wherever and whenever, so it's not only untethered in terms of space but also in terms of time.”

For Wilson, this kind of real-time research offers new insights into behaviors that were previously limited by traditional lab settings.

“Studying cravings in the laboratory can be limited in important ways,” Wilson said. “You can provoke strong cravings, but if you want to try to understand it as it happens naturally, using mobile technology is a really nice way to do that.”

Wilson collaborated with DREAM to program mobile surveys for smokers to take throughout their daily lives. Using DREAM-provided Android cellphones, study participants could either be surveyed randomly throughout the day or at set times. By collecting data from participants as they experienced real-world problems, Wilson was able to observe smokers in a more natural environment.

According to Smyth, trying to harness the data from these natural settings is not a new concept.

“We used to have people wear those old-fashioned pagers. We’d telephone them and they would have a paper diary they'd fill out,” Smyth said. “So we've been doing this for a long time.”

As interest in these tech-based collection tools grew over the years, researchers at the University realized a need for a centralized resource hub, leading to the formation of DREAM.

In the four years since it’s inception, DREAM has worked on approximately 20 projects spanning a variety of disciplines, according to project manager Erin Locke.

“I’d say the majority of our focus is in psychology, kinesiology, sociology and those types of fields,” Locke said. “I think once word gets out about what we do and people see a need for it in different areas we’ll continue to grow.”

In fact, the service has already started to grow beyond the sphere of Penn State. According to Smyth, DREAM has attracted global attention for its innovation, and the program even offers its services to researchers outside the University.

“Researchers from other universities come here because of the expertise of DREAM. So it is, in fact, something that Penn State is uniquely known for,” Smyth said.

In June 2015, Penn State hosted the Conference on Frontiers in Ambulatory Assessment, which brought together researchers from around the world to present new advances in technology-based research.

“We had about 200 people from all over the world who attended,” Smyth said. “This is an area of research that people are incredibly excited about.”

With such a technology-focused service, keeping on top of the constantly changing system updates and technology trends is vital to DREAM’s success. Android operating systems, which DREAM relies on, are updated frequently, meaning the program is in continuous development to stay ahead of the game.
    
“It's challenging to stay on top of Android development because every time you get a new phone it's got a new version,” Locke said. “So we're always testing on different versions of Android — we're testing our app and new developments on all the current and retro stuff, so we can keep everything up to date.”

Although the program is currently focused on mobile applications and surveys, Locke says new ideas are always on the horizon.

"If a researcher requests a feature not currently offered in our application, we’re open to their needs," Locke said.  "We are continually working on new development, as well."

According to Locke, one such new idea is integrating geospatial technology with mobile surveys as a form of intervention.
              
“If you have GPS set up on the phone, and you're carrying the phone with you, if you get within a certain distance of a bar, let's say it's an alcohol study, it would prompt you to take a survey,” Locke said.

For Wilson, these mobile interventions create new and exciting possibilities in smoking research.

“Not only can we study people, but we can develop algorithms that predict when someone is going to have trouble,” Wilson said. “So when a smoker is at an increased risk of relapsing and going back to smoking, we can use the same technology to send them a message that may help them stay on track, and I think intervention is really where this field is heading.”

For more IT stories at Penn State, visit news.it.psu.edu