Data Everywhere: Making Sense of Our Digital Landscape

Laurie Robinson - March 30, 2023

INFO, UMIACS, CMNS, as part of the UMD Human-Computer Interaction Lab (HCIL), unlock the potential of ubiquitous data.

Hand touching a smart phone and drawn data visualizations are floating out of it

“Everything you do on the internet is tracked and captured,” says Niklas Elmqvist, professor at the UMD College of Information Studies (INFO) and member of the UMD Human-Computer Interaction Lab (HCIL), a joint venture of INFO and UMD Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS). While this may conjure images of a dystopian panopticon, and Elmqvist certainly acknowledges the privacy implications, he largely sees the potential in this phenomenon. “The data you need to make decisions is collected everywhere,” he says—and that has its benefits.

Whether you are deciding which product to buy or where to dine for lunch, many situations in our everyday personal and professional lives benefit from access to relevant, accurate, and actionable data that is just a click or swipe away. This easily accessible data is made possible because all aspects of our physical and digital world—shopping lists and purchase histories; movie, music, and book preferences; electronic health records and medical test results—are being captured.

With a long-standing commitment to improve the interaction between humans and computing, the HCIL has done significant work in helping people understand their data and make the correct decisions, particularly when it comes to personal health informatics.

Leveraging Personal Health Data

While most personal data is captured through our cell phones, activity tracking technologies like FitBits have made inroads in the personal health informatics space over the years. These technologies have their limitations. FitBits under-report slow speeds—for example, people walking with canes or walkers—so are not designed with older adults’ lifestyles and perspectives in mind. As a first step toward creating activity trackers for older adults, Eun Kyoung Choe, INFO Associate Professor and HCIL member, Diana Chou, recent graduate of the UMD College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences (CMNS), and other colleagues, including INFO professors Amanda Lazar and Hernisa Kacorri, created a smartwatch-based activity labeling system that keeps older adults in mind.

The researchers designed and built MyMove, a speech-based smartwatch app that allows users to record the activities they’re engaging in. They conducted a 7-day study, where 13 older adults used the smartwatch while also wearing an activity monitor on their thigh. Participants described activity type, associated timespan, and perceived effort level every hour.

“From activity labels collected in-situ, we can have a better understanding of what older adults are doing throughout the day,” says Choe. “People are gardening, socializing, eating meals, and having meetings. They are capturing various activities, which helps researchers understand how they are spending their time.”

Older adults engaged in a range of activities. Some pulled weeds and picked tomatoes in their gardens. The activity mostly had positive associations—being in nature improves mood—but stooping low, trowel in hand, isn’t great for the back. “A single activity is never good or bad. People are trying to find the right balance between the frequency and duration,” says Choe. People also did chores around the house—washing dishes, folding clothes—and often climbed up and down stairs. While moving between the floors of your house is good exercise, there were safety implications for some who wondered if a single-story home would be better.

Personal health informatics is about empowering individuals with their own personal data so that they can use the data to achieve personal goals. The goals range from simply increasing the awareness of one’s behaviors to making informed decisions and improving their lives by taking regular breaks, eating healthy, exercising more, and managing chronic conditions.

The MyMove system and activity labels along with the sensor data collected from older adults could play a critical role in facilitating personalization. The research team aims to support older adults and other underrepresented populations in fine-tuning the models in activity tracking applications with their own data, so that the applications can reflect their idiosyncratic characteristics.

“Even though people are contributing to personal data collection, many systems aren’t necessarily designed to give enough benefits back to the user. How can we make those data more useful?” says Choe.

The Potential of Data Visualization

Elmqvist, who is currently working on a project called DataWorld—an augmented reality framework that will make data about a geographic location visible in the real world—is concerned with not only making data more useful but also more accessible and, like Choe, is looking to empower individuals.

Cell phones are portholes into the digital world. You view that world through a small screen and have to split your attention between that and the real world around you. How many times have you or someone near you bumped into something on the street or in a hallway because your attention was focused on your device? What if you could project computer-generated images onto your field of vision?

Although Google Glass was a failure and most augmented reality devices aren’t accessible to a general public, things are changing. “The real potential is when you embed computer-generated imagery with the world,” says Elmqvist. Imagine you’re walking to the bus station on campus, a heavy backpack slung over your shoulders. You wonder if you’ll have to run to catch it. What if you could look at the bus and there’s an indication on it of how long before it leaves? You don’t have to search for the information; it’s right in your field of vision, enabling you to take advantage of data in a serendipitous way.

Companies can also use the technology. Imagine arranging the layout of machines on a factory floor. You want to incorporate all the information about the size requirements of machines and where material from one machine enters another so that you can build an entire workflow that takes advantage of safety, security and how people move. If you have to split your time between your phone and the factory floor, it can be hard to correlate what you see on the screen with the real world. Augmented reality changes that.

There are even implications for environmental sustainability. Air quality, pollution, waste, and electricity consumption are largely hidden. But what if you could see how much energy your refrigerator was consuming, how much trash you’re producing, and what you’re recycling? Data that is intrinsically 3D and specific to the space we’re in allows us to gain a deeper understanding of the world around us.

“It is safe to say that we are rapidly approaching a world where computing has indeed been woven into everyday life,” says Elmqvist. And that has the public equally excited and wary.