School of Computing

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Open source, open data, Open Lab

Open source sensors developed at Newcastle University's Open Lab are behind the largest study of physical activity ever conducted.

Biobanks are becoming an increasingly important tool in medical research, offering an opportunity to study human health on a massive scale.

Since 2007, UK Biobank has collected data about the genetic and biological information of half a million volunteers. They provided blood, urine and saliva samples and detailed information about their health, so that researchers can investigate possible genetic links to major illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

Now UK Biobank has expanded to collect data in other areas as well, including diet, bone structure and physical activity. To measure activity, UK Biobank uses sensors, worn on the wrist for a week, that measure the movements of participants. These sensors were designed by Open Lab.

This has been the biggest physical activity study in history. Almost 104,000 people wore the sensors, contributing a total of 2,000 years’ worth of movement data. This data can be used to investigate the impact of physical activity on health. Previous studies relied on self-reporting by participants, but Biobank’s new physical activity dataset offers much more accurate information.

“Large-scale studies are required to reliably understand the causes and consequences of disease,” said Dr Aiden Doherty from the University of Oxford. “UK Biobank’s combination of activity, imaging, genetics, and clinical databases, will soon help us better understand physical activity and its health consequences.”

The study used AX3 acceleration sensors that were designed in Open Lab and manufactured by Axivity Ltd, a Newcastle University spin-out.

“It’s actually a relatively simple device, in many ways just like your average wearable fitness tracker but with the capability to store the raw unprocessed data on the device,” explained  Professor Patrick Olivier, who leads Open Lab, part of Computing Science at Newcastle.

“However, key to the success of this project was the low cost of the device, compared to commercially available alternatives, and that we were able to adapt the device programming interface to UK Biobank’s central database of participant contact information so that the right device was sent to the right person, allowing us to link it to the other data they provided on their behaviour and health.”

Open Lab is part of Newcastle University's world-leading School of Computing Science which will soon move to the £60m Urban Sciences Building on Science Central.

Read the full University press release here.

Open Lab - Biobank

published on: 6 February 2017