Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Student pushes through programming challenges to create mobile app for medical research

Thawda Aung ’13 hopes a mobile phone app that he wrote this summer could help improve and extend the lives of people with Alzheimer’s, depression, diabetes, or other illnesses. That’s one reason why hitting a quagmire in the middle of thousands of lines of code was so challenging.

He wanted the app, part of a Summer Research project connected to a major medical study, to automatically upload data that it collected so doctors could analyze it. This was not as automatic as he had hoped.

“I’m not the kind of guy who would give up something really easily, but I was about to give up after four nights of not sleeping,” he said. “I was pretty much a zombie.”

Finally, he decided to walk away and focus on other things for a day. He slept, he went to the gym, he went for a run. While he was running, his mind caught hold of an idea. Back at the computer, he worked through his problem and got the app working correctly.

Aung is working with Randolph College Professor Katrin Schenk, University of Nebraska Medical Center professor Stephen Bonasera, and fellow student Jim Kwon ’14 to develop and test a medical mobile monitoring system using cell phones. This fall, Alzheimer’s patients will be given Android phones that will track their daily activities and help doctors understand how the disease is affecting them, and whether medications are working as intended. The study won a $200,000 grant from the Alzheimer’s Association.

Aung and Kwon have worked on the project for the past two summers. Kwon has focused on developing an algorithm that analyzes a cell phone’s accelerometer data to determine a person’s activity level. This summer, he has worked to refine that algorithm with the help of University of Nebraska students who carry phones with them to gather data. “They’re doing things like going hiking, walking up and down stairs, so that we can look at the accelerometer data, and Jim is working on analysis,” Schenk said.

Kwon is also writing a paper about using mobile monitoring to understand a person’s activity level.

Last year, Aung created the monitoring app on a Nokia phone. But Nokia has discontinued the operating system the program was written for, so this summer he converted the code to run on Android phones.

The app is now ready to collect data for the Alzheimer’s study, but Aung plans to continue developing its capabilities and testing it until it is ready to be published in an app store. He said it has features that will set it apart from other apps that track people’s motions.

“People have made pedometers, and people have made GPS tracking apps. But we are analyzing your movement, your behavior patterns, and how they change,” Aung said. This analysis could help app users recognize when they slip into behavior patterns that could signal depression or other health problems. Recognizing those behavioral changes could help them improve or prompt them to seek help.