Your phone as counselor: monitoring mental health from your pocket

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Blaine Friedlander

Your smartphone knows where you go and how fast, while its microphone hears your voice. Soon, your phone may use these capabilities to measure the stress in your life and help you deal with it.

Tanzeem Choudhury, associate professor of computing and information science, is developing such an application, supported by the newly created Intel Science and Technology Center (ITSC) for Pervasive Computing, a collaboration between Cornell and five other universities, managed by the University of Washington.

Intel's goal is to develop technologies capable of continuously learning and adapting to consumers' needs. Pervasive Computing ITSC projects include "smart houses" that monitor family activity and help out in the kitchen, as well as applications like Choudhury's for mobile health and well-being. Intel is providing funding to support two graduate students for two years or more for Choudhury's research.

"There has been some work on using phones to measure physical activity," Choudhury said. "But sensing mental health is [somewhat] underexplored." Previously she has used mobile sensors to map people's social networks, a process she calls "reality mining."

Choudhury proposes to use the phone's microphone to monitor stress levels in speech, with privacy protection to make the actual words unintelligible. Knowing where and when stressful events occur can lead to advice on how to avoid them. The tricky part is crafting the advisory messages.

"You have to be really careful how you do the feedback, to make sure you're not going to have an adverse effect," she explained. "There are subtle ways of engaging a person with a problem."

Choudhury is collaborating with Deborah Estrin, director of the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing at the University of California-Los Angeles and a leader of the Open mHealth project which aims to use mobile devices to enhance mental health. They will draw on the advice of physicians and psychiatrists in designing their applications. She also will work with other researchers in the Pervasive Computing ITSC to extend her system's monitoring into the smart house.

Before joining the Cornell faculty this fall Chudhury began her work on mobile health monitoring at Dartmouth, and she continues to collaborate with Dr. Ethan Berke at Dartmouth Medical School and Andrew Campbell, professor of computer science at Dartmouth.

 


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