Alumnus Leia Minaker (BSc ’04) grew up in Waterloo’s Lakeshore neighbourhood in the 1980s – before so-called helicopter parenting and before smartphones.
“I think back to growing up and all of the risks I took. I think a push notification on my phone would have kept me away from some of the health risks that most kids don’t recognize but build up over time, like UV exposure or eating too many penny candies and slurpees,” she says. “That’s important because diseases resulting from these mini-exposures – things like UV radiation and poor diets – contribute to the biggest burden of morbidity and mortality in Canada: chronic diseases.”
Minaker, who now teaches in Waterloo’s School of Planning, is a pioneer in the emerging field of smart prevention. Along with her research partner, alumnus AJ Wray (BES ’18), she’s developing a novel approach to chronic disease prevention. She uses smart-city environmental monitoring to trigger local prevention policies and behaviour.
Minaker and Wray started off connecting the dots between cancer risk and features of the built environment, like factories. By combining mapping technology, and applying best practices for good health, they created an app that lets people know if and when their physical location is impacting their well-being with push notifications.
“It makes sense that the technology we use to avoid traffic and line-ups at brunch can also be used to avoid some of the worst health impacts in our built environment,” says Minaker.
Beyond simply identifying health risks, their app offers advice on what to do to stay mentally and physically healthy. “For instance, while walking near Waterloo Park, participants could receive a message noting, ‘Green space is good for reducing anxiety!’” Minaker explains. “Or, ‘air quality in the city is unhealthy today: exercise indoors instead of outdoors.’”
As society rapidly urbanizes all around the world, the technology being developed by Minaker and Wray could have uses far beyond just notifications. The system will also feed data back into a wider integrated smart city health network, giving policymakers more information about where citizens are going and which health impacts they’re experiencing.
“Creating healthy urban environments is the long-term goal.”