Information sharing research aids student understanding of digital data use

Three researchers from the University of Sheffield’s Information School have explored the way people use diet and fitness mobile apps - to investigate what information app users share and how they make sense of the information that they get back.

A runner checks a fitness tracking app

Pam McKinney, Laura Sbaffi and Andrew Cox are interested in the informational ways that people use these various apps to monitor their diets and track their fitness, discovering a multitude of ways that their findings can be used in teaching.

The interdisciplinary and collaborative nature of this project has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of University students benefitting from the findings, as the research has provided three different outputs that can be applied to various contexts.

For Laura, who is a Lecturer in Health Informatics, this research has proved to be especially relevant for her students; a large proportion of which are healthcare professionals.

My students are becoming more attuned with their patients; not just as statistics, but as human beings.

Laura Sbaffi

Lecturer in Health Informatics

She uses this research to show her students that there is a human angle to medical disciplines and that medical research isn’t always based on practical, procedure based research.

“This kind of research helps them to be aware that research is not just necessarily down to checking the blood pressure of a patient or comparing vitals and running trials, it’s also including the social aspect,” Laura says.

She continues: “The community aspect of people also has an impact on their health and their health habits in the long run, so my students are becoming more attuned with their patients; not just as statistics, but as human beings.”

Making sense of complex information

Pam teaches information literacy to students on librarianship programmes, which means that she uses this research to teach would-be librarians how to make sense of complex information.

She hopes that this research will help her students – when they go on to work as librarians – to understand how to identify where information is needed, how to find it and how to test its credibility; as well as being empathetic to the informational needs of University students.

“By raising awareness of all these different ways that people interact with information it helps my students, as future professionals, to be a bit more understanding of the different ways students might approach study and the information used in study.

“Because of the different ways people use information in their daily lives, I think it really helps to raise awareness of information literacy as something that is quite contextual and is quite different for different people,” Pam explains.

Developing communities

Interestingly, this research has also shed light on the ways that online communities are formed around the sharing of personal information for niche purposes.

Andrew has used this research to identify the way that these online communities, or individuals within them, differ based on the information that they choose to share.

He noticed that people who used food logging apps were far less likely to share this information than those using fitness tracking apps.

He says: “Maybe the difference between food logging and activity tracking is that food logging seemed a bit more private, people felt a bit uncomfortable about sharing. Whereas activity tracking is a happy thing and people like to share that; so it gives a different feel to the different communities.”

What appears to tie these various outputs together, though, is an understanding about data privacy and the implications of giving up personal information.

Personal information

A key finding has been that app-users willingly share a lot of their personal information - seemingly without any concern for where this information is stored - and this is something that Pam, Laura and Andrew are keen to engage people with.

“There’s definitely social implications in making people aware of their privacy, privacy issues and sharing loads of data,” Andrew says, “people will sign up for these websites for free and they just give away everything – they don’t look at the terms.”

He adds: “There’s also the issue around preservation, people probably don’t realise that this data is a kind of digital possession and, actually, they don’t have much control over it in the long-run.

"So the public really needs to understand that better, that would be one way we could take this research forward.”

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