Grants for New Informatics Professors Support Health and Children’s Literacy

March 27, 2019

Two of the newest faculty members in the Department of Informatics were recently awarded grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF’s Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) Research Initiation Initiative (CRII) aims to help beginning investigators establish their research programs. Daniel Epstein and Stacy Branham, both of whom joined the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) as assistant professors in Fall 2018, each received $175,000 to fund their proposed research. Epstein’s work supports food journaling, while Branham’s focuses on improving children’s literacy skills. Both awards fall under the NSF’s Cyber-Human Systems (CHS) program, demonstrating ICS’s continued excellence in human-computer interaction research.

Multiple Modalities for Food Journaling
Keeping a journal of the foods you eat offers a variety of health and wellness benefits — it can help with everything from losing and maintaining weight to identifying food allergies. However, Epstein points out that “it’s notoriously burdensome to keep an accurate log.” He explains that although you can use mobile apps, such as MyFitnessPal and YouFood, to look up calorie estimates or to take photos for general awareness, most apps offer only one input modality. “What if a person could use whatever modality they wanted?” This is the question Epstein aims to answer with his CRII grant, “Examining a Multimodal Approach to Lowering the Burden of Food Journaling.”

Daniel Epstein

Over the next two years, Epstein will work with a Ph.D. student to explore how systems for journaling health data can better leverage the many devices people use. “We’re going to build some lightweight tools that support a range of entry mechanisms and devices,” he says. They will consider photo and text-driven mobile apps, journaling websites, and special commands for digital assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Home. Then, they will recruit a group of people to test the tools and will study what influences their modality choices and food descriptions

The goal is to use the findings to inform how food journaling apps are designed. Epstein also expects the studies to inform journaling apps in other domains, such as stress or mood. As outlined in the grant proposal, this research will “address a major public health goal of promoting people’s ability to collect, and get value from, health data.”

Technology for Early Literacy
Turning from health to education, Branham’s grant, “Making Universally Usable Technologies to Enhance Parent-Child Co-Reading and Early Literacy Skills at Home,” addresses gaps in early literacy development.

Stacy Branham
Stacy Branham

Children from low-income families often enter kindergarten far behind peers from wealthier families. To address this gap, Branham is building on research that shows the importance of reading to children at home. In particular, she’s starting by working with low-income families where one parent has a disability. The goal is to create new technologies that these parents can use while reading with their children to enhance “extratextual” interactions. One example of such interactions is when, in response to a parent’s question about the story’s plot, the child points to pictures in the book.

Branham will work with a Ph.D. student to design a prototype that promotes co-reading experiences and extratextual interactions to better achieve “reading readiness.” This particular project will focus on helping blind parents in low-income families as they co-read with their sighted children, but follow-up investigations will examine how identified solutions might benefit broader populations. The grant proposal emphasizes the far-reaching implications of this work by pointing out that “one in seven Americans has ‘below basic’ literacy skills, a fact that threatens the country’s national security and economic growth.”

It’s not insignificant that Branham has chosen to first approach the problem from the perspective of people with a disability. “This will be the first of several projects in which I demonstrate the argument I made during my Design@Large talk at UCSD this past winter –– that innovating new technologies with members of marginalized communities may lead to better technologies for everyone.”

— Shani Murray