Take 10 with... Ian Warren and Andrew Meads

Senior lecturer Dr Ian Warren and professional teaching fellow Dr Andrew Meads from the Department of Computer Science give us 10 minutes of their time to discuss smartphones and safe driving (yep, you did read that right!).

Dr Ian Warren and Dr Andrew Meads, Department of Computer Science
Dr Ian Warren and Dr Andrew Meads, Department of Computer Science

1.  Describe your research topic to us in 10 words or less.

A smartphone app that helps youth drivers drive more safely.(InSCIde Scoop note: We think they deserve a prize for 10 words on the nose…)

2.  Now explain it in everyday terms!

BackPocketDriver is a smartphone app that monitors the way young people drive.

The app gathers information during a journey and identifies incidents of speeding, heavy breaking, harsh acceleration and abrupt steering. Using the app, young drivers get to see feedback on their journey, set goals, receive positive reinforcement, and education around safe driving practices.

The point of difference between BackPocketDriver and other driving apps is that our app is founded on behavioural change theory, which has been successful in other areas, such as supporting people to quit smoking. With our work, we draw on behavioural change theory to encourage youth to adopt and hone safe driving skills.

3.  Describe some of your day-to-day research activities.

In the early stages of the research, we spent time with focus groups targeting end users and their parents.

We also consulted with key stakeholders, including the Police, NZTA and the AA. With this input we selected appropriate behavioural change techniques and came up with a set of features for the app.

Since its development, our day-to-day activities have revolved round promoting the app, recruiting trial participants and working with them to evaluate the app’s potential effectiveness.

4.  What do you enjoy most about your research?

We’re motivated by applied research that can make a difference to people’s lives.

Youth drivers are over-represented in road traffic deaths and accidents, and we hope that research like BackPocketDriver will help to reduce the youth road toll.

5.  Tell us something that has surprised you in the course of your research.

We developed the app for Android phones, knowing that Android has the largest market share in this part of the world. When we came to recruit participants, we found that many year 12 and 13 students who wanted to take part in our trial couldn’t do so because they had iPhones. It looks like Auckland college students buck the trend!

We were also surprised about the lack of interest from young people in integrating the app with social media. While they like to measure their driving performance and compete, they don’t want to share this information with the rest of the world!

6.  How have you approached any challenges you’ve faced in your research?

Perhaps the biggest challenge we faced was recruiting trial participants.

We initially started with posters dotted around the University and making appearances in lectures. This resulted in some uptake, but not as much as we wanted.

A colleague suggested Facebook advertising. With the help of the Science Marketing team (InSCIde Scoop note: thanks for the shout-out guys!), we set up a short advertising campaign using Facebook, and were able to target people based on their age, location and phone type. This worked really well – with little effort registrations began rolling in.

7.  What questions have emerged as a result?

We’re at the stage where the trial is wrapping up. Participants used a monitoring-only phone to track their driving behaviour for a month, and then in the second month we gave participants the full BackPocketDriver app.

The key question we’ll be able to answer is whether using the app did improve driving behaviour.

If it does, we’d like to find out whether discontinuing use of the app leads to a return to poorer behaviour, and, in this case, how long should the app be used for?

8.  What kind of impact do you hope your research will have?

We hope our research will lead to a product that improves the safety of young drivers, and ultimately contributes to making New Zealand roads safer for all.

9.  If you collaborate across the faculty or University, who do you work with and how does it benefit your research?

We lacked expertise in behavioural change theory, and reached out to colleagues in the School of Population Health, in particular Associate Professor Robyn Whittaker.

Robyn is an expert in the field of behavioural change, and by pooling our expertise we’ve been able to develop a novel, smartphone-based intervention for youth drivers.

10.  What one piece of advice would you give your younger, less experienced research selves?

Don’t be discouraged by setbacks along the way. Funding applications aren’t always successful the first time around, and problems can usually be solved with perseverance.