Big data and how it can help our emotional selves - Happy + Well : Happy + Well

Big data and how it can help our emotional selves

Written by on January 28, 2016 in Digital Health, Relationships, Wellness, Young People with 0 Comments

5467250-3x2-340x227The prevalence of technology means anonymity is virtually impossible in this day and age. That’s because we leave so-called ‘digital breadcrumbs’ every time we use our mobile phone, log onto Facebook, or even use the Internet. Just as there are those who fear the power of big data in the wrong hands, many also see the enormous potential in harnessing this wealth of information to inform and empower people to take the steps they need towards a healthier life.

Consider, for example, a massive campaign for suicide prevention in young men that owes its success to digital technology and social networking. Or a new Twitter tool that monitors and then tracks the ebb and flow of all English-language tweets for words describing emotions in order to detect hotspots of mental illness. Both are subjects of this radio program about how digital data can help improve our emotional wellbeing.

‘Soften the Fck Up’ is the brainchild of social entrepreneur Ehon Chan who says the aim of it is to empower people, specifically young males, by giving them “permission and a platform” to share their experiences and stories. This is so users feel more connected and less alone, and therefore more likely to seek help if need be. Chan says the response has been “overwhelming. Within the first year we attracted over 60,000 people. By the second year this had doubled.”

His tip to anyone designing or using digital technology is to remember the user is a human being, and that humans “are complex, they have emotions, and because this is a very emotionally driven campaign, we want emotional investment right from the beginning. So everything has to be very compelling.”

Still on suicide prevention, ‘We Feel’ is the name of a Twitter tool that’s been developed to help reveal suicide risk. It’s the result of a partnership between Amazon, the CSIRO, and the Black Dog Institute whose executive director Helen Christensen says, “We’re trying to see if the emotions that we’re identifying map on well to what we already know epidemiologically about how depression is dispersed in communities”. If so, she adds, “it becomes a very powerful tool to identify areas of distress”, helping to educate and guide health authorities and policy-makers.

The research, however, is still in its early days and as Christensen says, “we don’t really know the extent to which Twitter can reveal deep emotions, the feelings that people have at an individual level. But we are using a number of different paradigms to test the idea that Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, LiveJournal and other blogs do provide real data. And once we are able to validate that, we will be in a position to say the extent to which something like Twitter as opposed to other technologies reveals things about people and their mental health.”


Valerie Gay is a leading researcher focusing on the design of networked and mobile applications, and Director of mHealth Lab at UTS, Sydney. Peter Leijdekkers founded the company, and is mHealth Lab’s technical director. They will be co-presenting at the Digital Health Show conference in April on this topic of technology and connection, specifically how digital platforms can empower elderly people and reconnect them to their communities. The conference is part of the Digital Health Show which is co-located with the Wellness Show and Happiness & Its Causes 2016.

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