EvA project aims to create ‘Skyscanner for science’ from huge datasets

23 Jan 2019

Dr Cailbhe Doherty. Image: UCD

Dr Cailbhe Doherty of UCD is helping develop, among other things, a ‘Skycanner for science’ to better connect data with doctors and the public.

After completing his undergraduate degree in physiotherapy at University College Dublin (UCD), Dr Cailbhe Doherty went on to do a PhD in the college’s School of Public Health, Physiotherapy and Sports Science. His PhD entailed conducting a movement pattern analysis of injury and subsequent recovery.

Doherty is now working at UCD as a postdoctoral researcher at the Insight Centre for Data Analytics in the area of wearable sensing and data analytics.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I’m quite sceptical in that I tend not to take statements or facts at face value. This was undoubtedly an irritating characteristic for my parents, teachers and eventually lecturers to have to deal with, but is a valuable trait in the field of research, particularly in the science of health and sport. What determines the status quo of practice, why, and how can it be improved?

I suppose I find my attempts at answering such questions very satisfying.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

Right now, I am involved with two main projects.

‘Pace-Man’ is an evidence and analytics platform and mobile app that leverages big data to inform runners’ race preparation, finish-time prediction and in-race pacing. It leverages large datasets of runners’ training and racing behaviours to determine the best way to train for an upcoming race, to help them identify a realistic target finish time and devise a pacing strategy that optimises the likelihood of them achieving that time.

I am also working on an another project called ‘EvA’, a ‘Skyscanner for science’ designed to facilitate the delivery of research to medical professionals and the public. It aims to investigate whether providing healthcare professionals and their patients with the right scientific information at the right time can improve their rehabilitation outcomes. This system is still in development, but we plan to commence testing in June 2019.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

We are currently witnessing an explosion of information in academia and scientific publishing. In 1968, 28 randomised controlled trials were published in the medical literature. Now, around 75 trials are being published every day.

The biggest challenge faced by my generation of researchers is initiating an evolution in evidence dissemination media so that people can actually benefit from research and information.

At present, this information is being stored in the silos of academic journals, hidden behind paywalls and completely detached from the people who stand to benefit from it. Instead of propping up this system as we strive to augment our academic profile in the traditional way (through the number of articles we have published or our h-indexes, for example), we as researchers need to develop and support new mechanisms of outreach, so the subjects of our research actually benefit from it.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

Commercialisation of research is one of the most effective ways of the tax-paying public receiving a return on their investment. If research produces a service or product that is of value to the public, that value serves to sustain continued development, iteration and scaling of the product, and the research that underpins it, which is hugely positive.

With this in mind, both the Pace-Man and EvA projects have commercial endpoints. If each is deemed effective and valuable to the end users, then both of these systems could become self-sustaining.

The Pace-Man system is already being used by a large number of runners, but it is still in development, so we will have to wait and see whether the runners who are using it now still consider it useful after their respective races.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Good research and data are important to inform people’s decisions in all aspects of life; in economics, health, travel, education and even entertainment. The difficulty is in acknowledging the limitations of that research and the questions it cannot answer. Research studies performed poorly, or a set of results interpreted incorrectly, can negatively impact the knowledge collective.

I wouldn’t yet call my research important, because I cannot yet demonstrate tangible evidence that it has improved public health, athletic performance or some other tenet of life. However, I believe the research that I am presently conducting is leading in that direction – it will just take a little more time!

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

The biggest misconception is that if something has been published in a research paper, then it is ‘fact’. The reality is that findings in research experiments do not always agree, so people need to remain sceptical until these findings are replicated in multiple high-quality trials from different research centres.

I believe we as researchers have a responsibility not only of producing original research, but also consolidating it so that it can be implemented appropriately.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

There was a research paper published back in 2011 by researchers from the University of Cambridge. They sought to quantify the time lags between the production of research and its implementation in healthcare practice. What they found was startling: it takes 17 years for research to be integrated in clinical practice.

I believe improving this statistic should be the focus of research in years ahead; we should be exploring new avenues of implementing and integrating research in practice.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.