Nova Scotia

Dal researchers create app that monitors mental health by measuring user's emotions

Researchers at Dalhousie University in Halifax have developed a smartphone app that can keep tabs on people's mental health by measuring their emotions when they talk and type on their phones.

PROSIT app gauges emotions from things like voice recordings, keystrokes and amount of sleep user is getting

The mobile sensing app for smartphones is being tested by about 300 participants. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Researchers at Dalhousie University in Halifax have developed a smartphone app that can keep tabs on people's mental health by measuring their emotions when they talk and type on their phones.

The hope is it will give mental health professionals a way to know how their patients are doing outside of a clinical setting so they can provide specialized treatment options.

The PROSIT app asks users to record a 90-second audio message about the most exciting thing that happened to them recently.

"We can actually find out whether they're anxious or depressed. It's fairly amazing," Dr. Sandra Meier, a psychologist with the IWK Health Centre and Dalhousie University, told CBC's Mainstreet.

"So you don't have to understand any of the content, you can just listen to people and actually you get their emotional state from the way that they talk."

Meier and her team began testing the mobile sensing app in February, and there are now about 300 people using it, half of whom are mental health patients.

Built-in sensors on people's smartphones track how well they're sleeping, how often they get physical activity and their social interactions. (Dr. Sandra Meier)

Right now, the researchers are using the app to study how well youth are coping with social isolation during and after the COVID-19 lockdown.

The app collects 15 different types of information, including how well a person is sleeping and how much physical activity and social connection they're getting. It does this by keeping track of the number of calls they make, the applications they use and what music they listen to.

It can also glean information about a user's mental well-being by tracking how they type, said Rita Orji, a computer scientist at Dalhousie who helped develop the app.

"When people are emotional, when you're angry, you want to send an emotional text. Not only the speed of your typing changes, but also the force you apply on the keyboard to type also changes," she said.

What about privacy?

Teresa Scassa, Canada research chair in information law and policy at the University of Ottawa, said apps like this may prove to be an innovative way to help people, but they also come with risks.

The concern is that the technology, which collects information about people's vulnerabilities, could be used in a context that the researchers never intended, she said.

"When you start to see technologies like this, it becomes even more important that we really start to think more carefully about the legal frameworks we have for regulating these types of technologies," Scassa said.

Teresa Scassa is the Canada Research Chair in Information Law at the University of Ottawa. (CBC )

Orji said she understands people's privacy concerns, but added that the research team had to pass Dalhousie University's rigorous ethics guidelines before they could begin their work.

"Our app took user privacy, security and safety into consideration as the major design objective ... from the very beginning of the app design," she said.

She said the information that's collected is encrypted and stored in a secure location at the IWK, and that participants in the study have sat down with the researchers and signed a consent form before downloading the app.

"When we talk about tracking your calls or SMS, we're actually not tracking what you say or who you talk to. We're actually just knowing the frequency, how often you call … so most of these are very high-level data that people are really comfortable giving," Orji said.

Rita Orji is a computer scientist at Dalhousie and one of the co-leads on the study. (Submitted by Rita Orji)

Still, Scassa cautioned that high-level data is very valuable, even if it seems mundane, and that it can be used to profile someone and therefore market to them or manipulate them.

"It's not the personal financial data or the medical data that we are traditionally much more concerned about protecting, but it's data that can be used in all kinds of ways that are often difficult to foresee, but that can have real impacts on our lives," she said.

What's next?

Meier believes the app can be an important tool for psychologists, like her, to keep tabs on their patients when they can't see them face to face.

"When we see our patients, they're with us for a very short time," Meier said. "And you would love to know how the patients are actually doing outside of the clinical setting so when they are at home, and we would like to do that in a way that is not so invasive for them."

She said she chose to develop a smartphone app because it's something many people can easily access and use.

Still, there are some things that the app can't pick up on alone, she said.

"I wouldn't say that we can predict a mental health crisis at the moment. We are trying to get there, but we also need a lot of other information," she said.

The next step is finding a way for the app to communicate treatment options or suggestions from a mental health professional to the user, Orji said.

"That's actually the ultimate goal is that the app can not replace the health-care provider, but complement them," she said.

With files from CBC's Mainstreet