Integrating emerging smartphone and genetic initiatives to produce cost-effective, innovative methodology


Principal Investigator: Aleksandr Kogan, University of Cambridge

Co-Investigator: Ilmo van der Löwe, University of Cambridge

Project duration: 1 April 2013 - 30 September 2014


This project combines emerging technological advancements in both genetics and mobile computing. The project investigators aim to create an open-source research tool that enables social scientists to connect with thousands of participants via smartphones to learn about their everyday actions without requiring them to visit a laboratory. Furthermore, the project investigators will demonstrate a new research model in which they recruit participants from an existing genetic participant pool (Cambridge BioResource Centre) and conduct studies using the smartphone software. This research model allows researchers to combine the rich, naturalistic behavioural data collected via the system with the participants’ genetic information. This combination of genetic and behavioural data makes it possible to address key questions in social science about the interaction of people’s hereditary factors and their daily environment.

In essence, the project unites two University of Cambridge initiatives and helps other researchers to benefit from them. Emotion Sense is a set of software libraries for building smartphone applications for continuous data collection, and the BioResource Centre is a pool of thousands of local volunteers who have already donated their blood for genotyping and have expressed interest in partaking in further scientific research. Together, they could increase the quality and range of techniques available for researchers to conduct innovative, interdisciplinary work extremely quickly and cost-effectively. This project expands Emotion Sense to be widely useable by social scientists; furthermore, we demonstrate how the software can work in conjunction with the BioResource volunteers to help social scientists understand how genes and environment are linked to people’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviour.

At the moment, operating Emotion Sense still requires computer engineering experts, which makes it difficult to use productively by the wider social science community. This project integrates Emotion Sense with a user-friendly website, which allows researchers to create and run smartphone experiments quickly and easily - no programming required. To demonstrate the quality and capabilities of our system, the project investigators use it to run a study understanding how genes involved in the oxytocin system ( a neurochemical associated with empathy, trust, and generosity) are related to how people respond to others in need. Therefore, in addition to conducting innovative biosocial research of our own, we will develop and deliver a research tool that other scientists can use in their own research to collect data easily and cost-effectively.

Listen to Alex talk about the project in NCRM podcast 'Mobile research tools for social sciences: Integrating genetic, environmental and behavioural data'.