Shaping sustainable and healthy cities using smartphone technology

Shaping sustainable and healthy cities using smartphone technology

Last month I attended the Future Cities Catapult Lunchtime Lecture in Farringdon. We had the pleasure of listening to Dr Audrey de Nazelle, Lecturer at Imperial College London (ICL), who discussed the exciting opportunities the smartphone is helping us shape a sustainable and healthy city.

Comprehensive research by ICL has shown that mobile health applications and smartphone based sensors have helped to engage the public and change human behaviours. Whether that be diet, physical activity or conserving energy. This research proves that smartphones and digital technology provide a real opportunity within our cities to reshape behaviour and to influence public policies.

Dr Audrey discussed a 3 way process on how to utilise the smartphone platform to collect research, assist stakeholders and inform citizens. Monitoring and engaging with the public can assist in creating a vision as to what makes cities healthier and more sustainable.

For example, within research concerning air pollution, it was noted that inadequately planned communication was ineffective or counterproductive. The key to success is, localised and actionable information, related to personal interests and simplified but not over-simplified messaging. Ideal for smartphone applications.

Technology has come so far. Smartphones now have all kinds of sensor modules that can be used to monitor our environment around us:

- Camera
- Microphone
- Temperature/humidity
- Inertial sensor unit
- Heart rate senso
- External sensors working with smart phones (air pollution, noise, UV etc)

However, although the smartphone is evidently one of the most interesting ways to engage the public, there are a number of factors that determine as to whether the next application for creating a sustainable and healthier city will be a success.

One of the most interesting points of discussion was the key characteristics of these types of applications and most of the success stories came down to the design.

Prompts and notifications (need to be stimulating and not frustrate the end user)
Personalisation (a hot topic that most companies within the digital space are trying to solve. How do you provide the user with a sense of control and an experience that is tailored to them?)
The interface (must be appealing, easy to use, tailored to individual preferences)
Feedback (keeps the user engaged, boosts morale, can include self monitoring, provide trend data)

We are at the beginning of understanding how mobile apps can be used to engage citizens into healthier and more sustainable behaviours. But, although the technology and research is available, it is important to remember that the design of the platform can be the deciding factor as to whether or not it is a success.

– Kate