Hong Gao introduces Ecological Momentary Assessment Platform

At NYU’s Tech Summit on November 14th, Hong Gao, CDS MS student, introduced her project, Development of an Ecological Momentary Assessment Platform for Public Health Research. Explaining Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA), Gao discussed how the project tackles the challenges of acquiring real time, ecologically valid feedback from survey participants. Specifically, Gao’s system employs surveys regularly deployed via SMS to participants’ phones. Why SMS? Gao responds that SMS remains a relevant form of communication; one, she argues, that is inclusive for subjects without smartphones while still leveraging the modern ubiquity of cell phones. Since the public health field aims to reach as many participants as possible and collect as much real-time data as possible, SMS surveys simply make the most sense. Gao noted, “Self-reported data is subjective, of course. But that’s exactly what we’re looking for.”

Gao outlined the expected process: a participant receives a text message with a one-question survey. The subject then inputs an answer within a particular timeframe (they receive a reminder if they have not yet completed the survey). The system then sends a follow-up question (or multiple), depending on the previous response. Gao represented this process as a flowchart, depicting possible responses, and their resulting follow-up questions. The system, Gao noted, is designed with the likely fatigue of the participant in mind. The nature of a text survey is that is quick and easily answerable. These qualities reduce the usual problem of compliance in typical surveys. “People forget what they did last week,” Gao said, “The idea is to receive real-time information. We achieve that by surveying regularly, and minimizing user effort.” As for possible users, Gao stated, “We want this to be a tool for all researchers– not just developers.”

Gao is currently using the system to monitor smoking habits of participants. She stressed, however, that the tool’s applications are for the user to determine. Researchers can customize the features of their study by adding their own questions, designing survey logics, and specifying the time and frequency with which people receive their surveys. Describing its inner workings, Gao unveiled a chart demonstrating how each element of the functionality is built into the system. The tool allows researchers to anonymize data by labeling participants with unique participant IDs that do not reveal any personal information and storing survey responses and personal identifiable information in separate files. Additional privacy measures include that only the administrators, meaning the researching team, have access to the system. “I want to thank our team of NYU student developers for their hard work. Without them, none of this would have been possible!” Gao finished.

By Sabrina de Silva