June 2, 2021

Citizen science portal for wearable tech puts Calgary in fast lane to healthier communities and economic diversification

Partnership with The City of Calgary creates opportunities for any citizen who walks, runs, cycles (or sleeps!) to get involved
Reed Ferber

When Dr. Reed Ferber, PhD, launched the Wearable Technology Research and Collaboration (We-TRAC) program in 2020, he was aiming to gather data from Calgary cyclists’ wearable fitness devices, like Fitbit and Garmin watches, to analyze how their cycling routes corresponded to changes in heart rate and stress levels.

A year later, Ferber has that data and more. In collaboration with 35 other researchers, Ferber has gathered over 140,000 hours of citizens’ physical activity data, including walking, running, cycling and sleep information — and he wants more.

“The data that your wearable devices collect offers our researchers an incredible range of insights into how the human body works, both at rest and when you’re being active out in our communities,” says Ferber, professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology.

Participants who provide their data, aka ‘citizen scientists,’ will be contributing to one (or more) of 16 research studies underway, looking at everything from cycling routes to sleep patterns. It’s as easy as visiting wetrac.ucalgary.ca and following a quick five-step sign-up process.

Aside from contributing to the individual research studies, citizen scientists will also be playing a key role in improving the experience of walking and cycling on Calgary’s roads and pathways. The City of Calgary’s Council Innovation Fund chose to invest in and work with the We-TRAC program because they saw its tremendous potential for increased data-driven decision-making.

“We want to design cities for people,” says Andrew Sedor, transportation strategist at The City of Calgary. “The City of Calgary is providing research topic ideas so that students and researchers can answer questions that are meaningful for planning and City service delivery. The City can then use the research to create infrastructure and operating improvements, such as making changes to a section of pathway where data shows users are physiologically stressed.”

“The fields of public health and urban planning are getting closer and closer,” says Ferber. “This project is a true ‘urban alliance’ — the city has needs, we have means to answer their questions, and we’re providing them access to data that is freely available and difficult to put together otherwise.”

High potential for economic diversification and growth

When they look at the field of wearable technology and Calgary’s role in it, Ferber and Sedor see nothing but potential for economic diversification

“Wearable sensor technology is one of the fastest growing technology fields in the world, and Calgary’s life sciences industry has been identified as an emerging cluster with high-growth potential,” says Sedor. “The City is helping to foster training students and researchers that are part of a burgeoning field that will be part of Calgary in the new economy.”

The We-TRAC program is currently training more than 50 graduate students from eight different faculties. As home to Canada’s first wearable technology program, UCalgary is one of the only universities training highly qualified personnel in the field.

“What I know is that we’re attracting the best of the best within our program — 80 per cent of our PhD students are attracting funding for their own projects. They’re stellar students,” says Ferber. “The citizen science portal ends up being a recruitment tool, because they know they have access to an unprecedented amount of data, and that we’re the only ones in the world doing this.”

The program also has over 40 local, national, international industry partners, and The City of Calgary is keen to continue their collaborations with the program.

“Students get to do meaningful work — we’re building the city together, and that’s fantastic for all of us,” says Sedor. Citizens interested in pitching a wearables research idea to The City of Calgary can contact andrew.sedor@calgary.ca.

Urban Alliance is a strategic partnership between The City of Calgary and University of Calgary to promote the seamless transfer of cutting-edge research between The City and the university, for the benefit of all our communities. Urban Alliance energizes connections between the people who make up our organizations, and encourages us to work together to find ways to make life better for all Calgarians. Learn more

Led by Reed Ferber, the Wearable Technology Research and Collaboration (We-TRAC) program is funded through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). The mission of We-TRAC is to train the next generation of wearable technology experts through multidisciplinary training and education. We have assembled a world-class group of researchers and industry partners. For more information go here.

The University of Calgary’s multidisciplinary Engineering Solutions for Health: Biomedical Engineering research strategy drives innovations that are saving lives and revolutionizing health care for Canadians.  With collaborative teams focused on human mobility, health monitoring, advanced biomedical imaging, precision biodiagnostics, regenerative medicine and novel medical technologies, our researchers are transforming quality of life and continuously improving the health system.

The We-TRAC program and its students are proud to work closely with and contribute to the Biomedical Engineering: Health Monitoring and Management research focus area.

Reed Ferber is a professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology jointly appointed to the Faculty of Nursing and the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. He is a member of McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health at the CSM.