How can sensors in our home help us better understand physical and mental health conditions? As part of our Mental Health Research Matters Interdisciplinary research series, we were joined by Dr Amid Ayobi and Dr Aisling Ann O’Kane from the EPSRC-funded SPHERE project, to find out more about human-computer interaction. They are just two of around a hundred researchers on this project, spanning a broad range of disciplines.
Here, Amid and Aisling discuss the role of engineering and physical sciences (EPS) in mental health research, discuss their work in engaging with ethnic minorities and hard-to-reach communities, the importance of lived experience involvement in research, and share their top tips for early career EPS researchers, with an interest in mental health.
This is a fascinating project, so grab a cuppa and enjoy!
Transcription of the recording:
How can AI help us to manage our mental health conditions? How would you feel about your kitchen monitoring your well-being?
This may sound like it’s been ripped from the pages of a science-fiction script, but these kinds of tools and technologies are already being developed by researchers from a variety of backgrounds in an effort to tackle the mental health crisis that we’re facing today.
Mental health research has traditionally been the domain of psychologists and psychiatrists; brain people for brain problems, but there is now wide acceptance that mental health is far more holistic than that.
Looking at recent research, we can see the massively diverse aspects of life impact people’s mental health from their level of access to parks, to the bacteria in their gut.
So, I’m setting out on a journey to explore the role of researchers and professionals from different disciplines who have found themselves working in mental health research. Some of whom never even saw it coming.
My name is JJ Buckle, and I am part of the Mental Health Research Matters team. Let’s meet our guests.
Hello, my name Amid Ayobi. I’m a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bristol.
My name is Aisling Ann O’Kane, I’m a senior lecturer in human-computer interactions for health. I’m co I [co-investigator] on the SPHERE IRC, and I’m also the deputy director of the Centre for Doctoral Training in Digital Health and Care. Both of these are funded by the EPSRC.
Amid and Aisling are working on a project funded by the EPSRC called Sensor Platform for HealthcarE in a Residential Environment. Very shrewdly shortened to SPHERE. This project is working across a wide number of institutions and disciplines and is investigating unobtrusive and accurate ways of measuring long-term health conditions from right within a patient’s home. Here, Aisling is telling me all about it.
SPHERE is a huge EPSRC project. An IRC [Interdisciplinary research collaboration] that involves a community of nearly a hundred researchers. And it is really focused on this kind of explosion of long-term health conditions across the UK and worldwide. And they not only require clinical engagement, but also continuous management outside of clinical settings and often within the home.
So not only things like diabetes, obesity, stroke, and falls, but also mental health issues as well. Together as this group of researchers, we’ve explored aspects such as human-computer interaction, but also ethics and machine learning and visualisation and a wide range of sensors. SPHERE has actually developed a number of different sensors that combined to kind of build a picture of how we live in our homes.
And then this information can be used in different ways. For instance, to spot issues that might indicate a medical or even well-being problem.
SPHERE is what is known as an IRC. That’s an interdisciplinary research collaboration, which is developing an array of sensors. Some in the homes, some wearable things like wrist bands to help patients and medical professionals monitor both conditions and interventions over longer periods of time.
These sensors have a few key requirements:
- They should require little or no action from the patient
- They should work reliably in the home setting because the home is not a hospital or a laboratory; and
- They should be unobtrusive. No one wants to feel like they are being spied on.
These are just a few of the tricky hurdles the SPHERE team have to navigate, but these sensors can be a vital tool.
They’re being trialled in the homes of patients right now. And they have applications in a wide range of both physical and mental health conditions.
So SPHERE can be used in many different ways. For example, researchers used SPHERE to understand the recovery of people who have hip replacements. SPHERE could also be used to better understand people’s mental health states and mental illnesses such as depression or bipolar disease in collaboration with clinicians.
As part of the SPHERE project, we also looked at the mental health needs of local ethnic minority communities. So mental health is determined by a wide range of socio-economic factors and understanding the mental health needs of people from diverse backgrounds is very important for designing inclusive mental health technologies and also interventions, including SPHERE deployments.
SPHERE’s sensors potentially can measure many things that are related to a person’s holistic health, but also related to their mental health. For instance, sedentary behaviour has been measured by SPHERE’s sensors, which can be linked to mental health and other aspects, such as sleep.
With the addition of a human in the loop, things such as diet can also be engaged with. Although there are also sensors within the kitchen that capture some cooking behaviours.
But with the kind of data fusion that’s happening with SPHERE, you can also use these sensors to gauge with changes and movement, postures and changes in the patterns of movement. It can analyse eating behaviours and combining this through data fusion could give insights into aspects of mental health.
Whether this is learning new patterns of behaviour, identifying risk factors, identifying symptoms, making new predictions, and also all the way to potentially optimising therapies and even personalising therapies for mental health.
Is it fair to say that one way in which the EPS community has potentially well-placed to have a direct impact on people’s lives when it comes to healthcare is in the development of sensors like these and various wearable technologies, which can really help people to both manage health difficulties and evaluate interventions?
So I think the proliferation of commercial technology provides an opportunity for EPS researchers to leverage data collected by people who want to collect this data and be able to leverage that into not necessarily interventions, but sources of self-reflection as well.
However, this could be further I’ll use the word exploited, which is not a great way, but to exploit this data that has already been collected and new and innovative ways as well.
There is a huge role for AI to support digital health needs, particularly around mental health and well-being. And this is I was talking about the potential for SPHERE, but there’s potential beyond the house as well, especially for what we call mobile sensing. So people wearing these technologies and being able to collect data that can influence what’s possible in data science, AI, and machine learning.
SPHERE is a massive project, but what grabbed my attention wasn’t the size of the grant or the seniority of its associated investigators. It was the array of disciplines, institutions, fields, and practices involved, which drew my eye.
Whilst based in the University of Bristol’s Electrical and Electronic Engineering Department, the SPHERE listing on the EPSRC website displays over 30 investigators from across medicine, bioscience, engineering, social science, and more. And that really is just the tip of the iceberg.
So SPHERE has about a hundred researchers attached to it. So these are engineers working on machine learning algorithms, computer scientists looking at innovations in AI. We have designers engaging with the actual design and the interaction between people and the system, but we also are working with clinicians and a variety considering the variety of potential uses of SPHERE and also social care professionals. Not only that, SPHERE has gone out of its way to really engage the public in the design of the technologies from the very start of this project. However many years ago, it was, I think it might be seven or eight years ago at this point. And there is still a strong public advisory committee that is engaged in the project and throughout the project that has really speared the vision of SPHERE.
And in order to make sure that is acceptable in people’s homes. It’s solved real healthcare problems in cost-effective ways, and it generates knowledge that will change clinical practice and also engineering design practice as well.
Yeah. I think collaborations are very important to successful research projects and I think there’s also so much that we can learn from how instinct practitioners, collaborate, for example as part of research and industry partnerships.
For example, working at the SAP Innovation Center, I collaborated with engineers product managers, and visual designers. And I think there are many, many transferable best practices. That can inform for example the research project that could be run as startups and the other way round. Our startups, for example, could learn more about how to use research methods.
And this is something that I also serve as part of the Machine Learning for Diabetes project that was conducted in collaboration with Quin – a startup that focuses on innovative technologies for people living with diabetes.
Both of us are researchers within human-computer interaction which is a strange corner of computer science, where the vast majority of people who work in human computer interaction, aren’t computer scientists.
I, myself, my background is in engineering, but what I do now is apply methods from anthropology in the social sciences. There are many people that I’ve worked with, with backgrounds in developmental psychology, with humanities backgrounds, philosophy, backgrounds, and whatnot.
So despite computer science being seemingly quite exclusive to nerds it’s there’s corners of it that are incredibly inclusive to a variety of people bringing their different perspectives and diverse kind of outlooks on how people interact with technologies. Which is incredibly useful and rich for something looking at digital health and particularly around mental health technologies and mental well-being, which has a lot of diversity of experience.
This interdisciplinary approach to mental health research really is vital in tackling the mental health crisis that we as a society are facing today. But truly interdisciplinary work does not stop at the doorways of universities and academic institutions. Just as important as different researchers, bringing their knowledge from different disciplines to the conversation.
There’s different sectors and organisations who can provide different skills and abilities being offered a seat at the table.
So as part of the SPHERE project, we are closely collaborating with The Knowle West Media Centre. The Knowle West Media Centre is an arts centre and charity that puts emphasis on community-led design approaches.
We work with Knowle West Media Centre experts who have a wide range of very important skills that we as researchers do not necessarily have. For example, creative writing or visual design. So we closely worked with a creative writer and also an artist when we co-designed the visual cards, but that was mentioned earlier, and that experience was very insightful.
And also eye-opening [to] how important these collaborations are. As researchers we are used to writing papers in academic and scientific language, but how would you go about designing for example, visual cards or any other support tools that are designed for the general public? And the working with a creative writer, it just opened my eyes to how much work she takes to translate, for example, an academic or scientific definition of what mental health is. And now to break it down into understandable chunks that people can read and understand and can use to talk with researchers to share their mental health experiences.
By working with the Knowle West Media Centre, which is a trusted arts charity within Bristol, we were able to work with them to develop relationships with underserved communities that aren’t traditionally involved in this kind of technology research. And that’s by engaging with this charity with these skills we were able to slowly gain trust of these communities as well in a way that isn’t conducive to timelines in research projects often, especially around computer science, where you were talking earlier about novelty and innovation, we try to work quite quickly.
That’s not how trust builds in, in communities that have been traditionally underserved might not have a trusting relationship. The ivory tower in a city like Bristol. So that, that, that is where they were able to lead to kind of select successful collaborations with these communities that will last beyond SPHERE as well.
We’re looking to work further with these communities and help design research programs that directly support them. Looking towards more participatory and user-driven approaches to research.
It seems like what you’re both saying effectively is that working kind of with various community groups and other academics basically allows you to do far more than you would have been able to do if you were just working independently or as part of, you know computer science siloed project.
Absolutely. Within SPHERE, having the ability to engage with a variety of technical and non-technical researchers, clinicians social care experts, but also expertise in the arts and humanities and community engagement has really led to quite a lot of successes and which will go beyond the end of SPHERE.
By working in a silo within computer science or human-computer interaction we wouldn’t be able to achieve these things.
These relationships, which are forged with people and organisations outside of academia are highly important and appealing to and reaching different communities. An unfortunate truth, which historically exists within mental health care and research is the exclusion or misrepresentation of different communities and the development of solutions, which aren’t acceptable or suitable for different groups of people.
Amid leads the SPHERE project’s work engaging refugee and ethnic minority communities in Bristol in its research. In an effort to put real experiences of different marginalised communities are the core of its work.
Yeah. So at this stage of the SPHERE project, our objective is to develop partnerships with local ethnic minority communities to better understand people’s mental health needs.
So the questions that we need to answer are for example, what are people’s perceptions of mental health? How do people self manage their mental health? Then, of course, what are people’s experiences with existing mental health technologies?
So we designed a set of the visual cards with the Knowle West Media Centre and people from diverse, ethnic backgrounds. And the visual cards they advance on a holistic mental health concept to support both the researchers and participants in understanding and sharing mental health experiences.
I would just like to touch on the PPI [Patient and public involvement] because I think aspects of Amid’s work and other researchers on SPHERE have gone beyond just a patient public involvement to actually having aspects of this project being driven by them as well. So using not only kind of human-centred or user-centred design practices, but user-driven design practices, co-design and participatory design, which in SPHERE and beyond SPHERE and mental health research has such potential. Particularly with engaging groups that have been traditionally underserved by research communities as well. By not only involving them in the co-design of technologies, but in the co-design of research practices and research studies.
Engaging people and communities in this way is a great example of the knowledge, expertise, and skill sharing, which makes interdisciplinary work so valuable.
I wanted to take a step back from SPHERE and hear from Aisling and Amid about what they think the role of the EPS community and mental health research is today, and as we move into the future. What can they contribute and bring to the table?
So engineering and physical sciences community have the technical skills, the design skills to bring to the table for innovative and novel design of technology. And a variety of skillsets can be used for projects, but also within interdisciplinary teams.
However, what we also need to be able to bring to the table is an open mind and a commitment to involve people, not as patients, but as people; potential co-designers potential co-researchers in these projects if you’re going to have an actual impact on real-world mental health practices and potential positive outcomes.
Because we know as human computer interaction researchers that the best intentions within design teams and research teams does not always translate into useful usable, acceptable technologies that are actually adopted. And by bringing people to the table with lived experiences within certain health conditions, certain mental health experiences, and within our own works lived experiences within their ethnic minority communities that will leads to trustworthy relationships that can be ongoing research collaborations, but also lead to potential successful, acceptable, and adopted mental health technologies and interventions.
Yeah, so I think what I would like to add is sharing of best practices. And I think I would like just to highlight what Aisling said regarding collaborations. So I think networking events and events that can help to meet other researchers in order to form multi-disciplinary collaborations is something that we need because mental health is a very holistic concept. And I think it requires definitely the multi-disciplinary collaborations in order to leverage the potential of new advanced technologies like AI approaches and to make sure that we address the mental health needs. A wide range of people with different capacities and skills.
And do you think that the current systems in place, be they funding or otherwise, are set up in such a way to allow this truly interdisciplinary, novel work to occur?
I think that the different funding councils have in recent years been very open with collaborating amongst each other and with charities to put up funding calls that are sensitive and well thought of in relation to digital health generally and mental health.
So I think there is a move and a trend towards that. There needs to be the recognition that the success of these projects they will not come out of a siloed ivory tower. And it is very hard as researchers who hope to work directly with these communities in a way that gives equal voice then to come to a funding application.
And it would be good to be able to giv e a more equal voice, not only in the research practices, but also in in, in the proposals as well.
What would you say to a young data scientist or engineer or computer scientist who wanted to apply their knowledge skills in a mental health research capacity, but wasn’t quite sure where to start?
So as part of the EPSRC CDT in digital health and care, we do have young data scientists , coming in wide-eyed with, with great ideas with regards to innovation, but in the first year. And in fact, in many of their first studies, we get them to engage with the communities that they will be designing for.
That is an incredibly important first step. And that doesn’t have to be the most time-consuming exercise. Although a lot of research with human participants is. There are low cost with regards to time exercises that will potentially allow people to gain a little bit more empathy for people that they are designing for. Including looking to the web because there’s a huge rich source of online health communities Twitter is a huge source of online health communities and people sharing. Now that’s not, everyone’s not sharing that you get some sorts and that’s a. Understanding of what’s going on amongst those health communities.
And that, that I would say is a very good first step. But, also volunteering is a great use of time to engage with these communities and give back to those communities before you start asking them to participate in your own research. It gives you a network. It gives you the kind of terminology and the vocabulary that people use, and it gives you a sensitivity to the area.
Yeah, looking also beyond the field of data science. So I think data science is becoming more and more exciting if combined with other disciplines. For example, we can clearly see the direction towards human-centred machine learning approaches and explainable AI. And these research grants, they highlight the importance of considering also ethical implications of data work and also to develop, to develop responsible data science methods.
As we’ve wrapped up our conversation. I wanted to understand why Amid and Aisling had decided to work on projects with mental health Applications out of all avenues, they could explore. What are the reasons that they ended up where they are today? And why is it important? So why does mental health research matter?
Technologies do have significant potential to support not only people in becoming fitter, happier and productive. But technology also has great potential to address mental health stigma, and support people in engaging in self-care. Like physical health, mental health is something that we all have.
So mental health research matters because it affects everyone. It is important for researchers, not just to focus on mental illness, but also well-being in their research as well, because that affects people’s daily quality of life.
And we all deserve to have a good sense of mental well-being. And there’s potential for technology to support this and potentially impact in positive ways. So I think it’s a noble pursuit to be pursuing mental health research in the EPS community.
That’s it for this episode. Thank you for listening and thank you to Amid and Aisling for talking to me as part of the series. Make sure to keep an eye on the Mental Health Research Matters website feature episodes on interdisciplinary work as well as to stay up to date on activities from across the eight UKRI mental health networks. We hope to see you soon.