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MU developers make semifinals of national app competition

A mood assessment tool conceived by University of Missouri researchers earned high marks in a national competition and could open the door to a brand new avenue for conducting surveys of all types.

Mood Toolkit was an app idea put forth by team leaders Yi Shang, professor of computer science in the College of Engineering, and Tim Trull, professor of psychological sciences at MU. Computer science students Will Morrison, Nick Wergeles, Peng Sun, Zeshan Peng and Luke Guerdan and Purdue psychological sciences Assistant Professor Sean Lane also contributed greatly to the project.

Shang headshot

A team featuring MU Professor Yi Shang developed Mood Toolkit to provide mental health researchers with a configurable real-time, context-based method to monitor patients’ daily emotional well-being.

The team developed Mood Toolkit to provide mental health researchers with a configurable real-time, context-based method to monitor patients’ daily emotional well-being. The idea was good enough to earn them a top-five finish out of approximately 70 teams in the national Mood Challenge competition, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The competition seeks to further understanding of mood in relation to natural and social contexts using novel applications for iPhones, related sensors and various data sources.

“We are pretty happy that our idea is valid and people like it,” Shang said.

The app used biometric data collected from external sensors that integrate with mobile devices, surveys and computer algorithms to produce a personalized diagnosis and suggest forms of treatment for individual users. The app would allow users to account for many different variables affecting their mood, including the weather, the people they’re with, location and more. Shang has worked on similar projects in the past, combining sensor data and prompted survey questions to study afflictions such as alcohol consumption and HIV.

The selection as a semifinalist put the Mizzou team in good company, alongside a collaborative team from the University of Illinois-Chicago, University of Michigan and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; a team from Overlap Health, including its CEO; a collaborative team from the University of California-San Francisco and Cal-Berkeley; and Northwestern University.

The team’s selection as a semifinalist also opened some unique doors for Morrison, a frequent undergraduate collaborator with Shang. Morrison and Trull had the opportunity to attend a boot camp at Apple Inc.’s corporate headquarters, then later had the opportunity to present their idea to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in New Jersey, exposing the undergraduate to a real-world startup environment.

“I was the only undergraduate student there. Everyone else was a Ph.D., a CEO or a dean,” said Morrison, who recently landed an internship with Google for next summer. “It was a great bootcamp, too.

“The other cool thing was I got to lead a development team to develop software for a large product. That’s really cool and very fun. I obviously wouldn’t have been able to do this at all if I wasn’t involved in (Shang’s) lab.”

Members of the team are looking to take aspects of the app a step further. The survey portion of the app has real potential in a wide array of applications, Shang said, both for users completing surveys in real time as well as institutions or individuals needing a quick, customizable way to create surveys for a mobile environment, as well as additional medical applications. They’re currently seeking funding to further explore these possibilities.

“The app can be a pretty general application, because you can collect different types of questions to answer different kinds of research or surveys,” Shang said. “With this toolkit, the idea is to make it configurable for users who know nothing about mobile apps, you can still easily create your question or get it from a database. Then, you can drag a few of the sensor modules you want to collect — video, photos, having surveys scheduled at regular intervals. Then you click build, and build a mobile survey.”