MapTrek research helps combat a health crisis


Photo Illustration by Roman Slabach

University of Iowa faculty and students have created an online game that might help motivate diabetic, obese, and other targeted populations live healthier lives.

The most recent research published by the MapTrek team shows that the online game is having its intended effect. Two groups were observed, one in which each member received a Fitbit and one in which each member received a Fitbit paired with MapTrek software that placed them in a digital race against one another. The goal: as many steps as possible.

“We have kind of a game board that links to Google Streets,” said Lucas Carr, an investigator in the study and a UI associate professor of health and human physiology. “All players have their own little game-piece avatar that shows them where they are on the map, what place they’re in, and how many steps they have so far.”

Philip Polgreen, a UI professor of infectious diseases and an investigator in the study, compared the game with The Oregon Trail, which was on the cutting edge of digital technology in the 1970s. Yet, just as young populations don’t know what The Oregon Trail is, Polgreen realizes that older populations have been left out of the newest digital health trends.

Polgreens’ research began with pairing a Fitbit watch with motivational SMS messages. The technique is simple and makes technology more accessible by removing the reliance on smartphone applications. Yet, simply reminding users to wear their Fitbit wasn’t enough, which is where MapTrek came into play.

Users receive a text every morning with challenges and incentives to get them going, and the rest is easy. The Fitbit is foolproof, paired with MapTrek technology, and all that people need do is walk around the block to see their digital players move up the leaderboard and traverse different digital locations each week. One day the West Coast, the next, Europe.

“Fitbit by itself is not enough; there has to be more to it,” Carr said. “So that’s what our approach was … kind of ‘gamifying’ the Fitbit.”

Carr’s area of academic focus is in health promotion, which is why his role in the game’s development was to figure out what might motivate its users.

Placing eight to 10 people in a footrace across London, at least digitally, seems to do the trick.

“From this study, we found that when people are given this game or play the game, they become much more active immediately,” he said. “People in our study were walking a mile more every single day compared with the comparison group.”

The original grant funding for MapTrek came from the Fraternal Order of the Eagles, a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding solutions to the epidemic of obesity and diabetes in the U.S.

“None of this would be possible without its support,” Polgreen said.

Since then, MapTrek has received grants from the National Institutes of Health and, most recently, the Veterans Association, other organizations focused on targeted populations that struggle to overcome sedentary, harmful habits.

Promoting a sustained, active lifestyle is MapTrek’s ultimate goal, but the incentive to even begin can be the turning point for people facing health crises such as diabetes.

“We’re testing it with populations that really do need to become more active,” Carr said. “With any toy or technology, we tend to play with them for a while, and over time, we get tired of them. This may be approach that’s used sparingly … a short-term kind of thing, and that would be fine.”

MapTrek might act as a “Phase 2” in rehabilitation programs, Polgreen said. With the group’s newest research centered on obesity and venturing into heart disease, the technology could help people recover from heart attacks just by making a game out of it.

“I think it’s important for the University of Iowa,” Polgreen said. “But these problems are universal.”

The newest research on MapTrek’s effect on targeted populations is promising but still being analyzed.

“Science moves at the pace of a snail,” Carr said, anticipating months of review even after the researchers submit their next manuscript.

For Alberto Segre, a UI professor of computer science who helped to develop MapTrek, the game is a testimony to the breakneck speed of the digital age and the talent of the students who have been raised in it. Undergraduates were critical in writing MapTrek’s code.

Segre’s whole field of research is only 50 years old or so, around the same age as the people the technology is supposed to help, but he is confident in his medium.

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