Study offers novel, inexpensive approach on improving public health

December 18, 2012 by Leslie Gibson Mccarthy, Washington University in St. Louis
Webcams, crowd-sourcing compelling tools in measuring effectiveness of bike lanes, other open spaces​
New research gives communities a novel way to measure the effectiveness of built environments like trails, greenways and parks. Credit: Joe Angeles

(Medical Xpress)—A new study out of Washington University in St. Louis is one of the first to use technology to effectively measure the use of built environments—parks, greenways, trails and other man-made public areas—as a means to improve public health.

The study, ": Webcams and Crowd-Sourcing to Identify Active Transportation," will be published Dec. 18 in the . Lead author is J. Aaron Hipp, PhD, assistant professor of at the Brown School.

" is costing the U.S. $147 billion annually," Hipp says. "We need to increase in this country and, by helping communities measure how effective cycling infrastructure, greenways, trails, parks and can be, we can both raise awareness and help communities build better environments," Hipp says.

The research was conducted in a novel way, using publicly available outdoor webcams and crowd-sourcing.

"The team used webcam imagery and a crowd-sourcing approach to count people, and cars, in rainy, foggy or crowded conditions where automatic methods fail and research assistants struggle due to and numbers," says co-author Robert Pless, PhD, professor in the WUSTL School of Engineering & Applied Science.

The findings suggest that these two sources have great potential for capturing behavioral change associated with built environments.

"This research can inform multiple fields, including public health professionals fighting the obesity epidemic, urban planners designing our public spaces to facilitate movement, and computer vision professionals seeking to improve machine learning for public safety," Hipp says.
A web tool called the Archive of Many Outdoor Scenes (AMOS)—developed by Pless—gave researchers thousands of images from which to study. AMOS uses publicly available outdoor webcams and a custom web crawler to capture webcam images with a time stamp—one image per camera every half hour.

From there, the Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) website was used to crowd-source the image annotation and collect data. MTurk workers were paid one cent to mark each pedestrian, cyclist and vehicle in a picture. Each image was counted fıve unique times, a process completed in less than 8 hours.

"These pictures allowed us to go back in time and study a place that looked different from year to year," Hipp says.

The study centered on an intersection in Washington, D.C., at Pennsylvania Avenue NW and 9th Street NW in June of 2009 and June of 2010, between which time a bike lane had been installed. The research found cycling activity in the area went up four-fold once the lane was built.

"Using a webcam works to capture activity," Hipp says, "and adding the bike lane increased the amount of cyclists using it. Because Dr. Pless has an archive of these scenes, we were able to locate areas where the physical environment, design or even policy environment had changed.

"We can now crowd-source the images to understand if these design or policy changes are associated with human behavior changes in the same space."

Hipp says this is about more than saving money and reducing a waistline. "Cycling or walking to work will reduce your carbon footprint by 20 percent," he says. "Many potential wins are associated with increasing pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. What is lacking is the evidence needed to convince communities and governments to spend the necessary money on improvements.

"There are literally tens of thousands of publicly available outdoor webcams throughout the world," Hipp says. "And they can be an effective tool for researchers."

Explore further: Study to evaluate zoning code reforms and physical activity

Related Stories

Study to evaluate zoning code reforms and physical activity

August 21, 2012
Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have received a $1.5 million federal grant to examine the relationship between zoning code reforms, the physical environment, and physical-activity behavior in communities ...

Bicycle infrastructure can reduce risk of cycling injuries by half

October 18, 2012
Certain types of routes carry much lower risk of injury for cyclists, according to a new University of British Columbia study on the eve of Vancouver's Bike to Work Week.

Many strategies to increase physical activity for kids lack injury prevention measures

January 20, 2012
A new study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) documents a need for increased injury prevention efforts in many of the most popular ...

Fewer than 25 percent of Americans walk for more than ten continuous minutes in a week, study finds

November 6, 2012
Many people in the U.S. do not walk, bike or engage in other forms of active transportation, missing an important opportunity to improve their cardiovascular health, concludes a new study in the American Journal of Preventive ...

Recommended for you

Wine is good for you—to a point

January 18, 2018
The Mediterranean diet has become synonymous with healthy eating, but there's one thing in it that stands out: It's cool to drink wine.

Sleep better, lose weight?

January 17, 2018
(HealthDay)—Sleeplessness could cost you when it's time to stand on your bathroom scale, a new British study suggests.

Who uses phone apps to track sleep habits? Mostly the healthy and wealthy in US

January 16, 2018
The profile of most Americans who use popular mobile phone apps that track sleep habits is that they are relatively affluent, claim to eat well, and say they are in good health, even if some of them tend to smoke.

Improvements in mortality rates are slowed by rise in obesity in the United States

January 15, 2018
With countless medical advances and efforts to curb smoking, one might expect that life expectancy in the United States would improve. Yet according to recent studies, there's been a reduction in the rate of improvement in ...

Teens likely to crave junk food after watching TV ads

January 15, 2018
Teenagers who watch more than three hours of commercial TV a day are more likely to eat hundreds of extra junk food snacks, according to a report by Cancer Research UK.

Can muesli help against arthritis?

January 15, 2018
It is well known that healthy eating increases a general sense of wellbeing. Researchers at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) have now discovered that a fibre-rich diet can have a positive influence ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.