There's an App for That
The Daynamica app helps researchers understand how people experience anything from transportation to healthcare.
Global Positioning System technology (better known as GPS) was just getting big in 2007 when Yingling Fan was finishing her dissertation in city and regional planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She was studying transportation issues for people’s daily needs and GPS was a powerful new tool. (Before GPS, researchers had to call study participants and ask them what they did the day before, which wasn’t the most accurate way to gather data.)
But even though it was a breakthrough technology, GPS was all coordinates and time stamps, with no hint at the human emotions that made up an experience. There was no way to understand whether someone felt frustrated by a long car commute or happy biking to work. Did they feel safe when they left their homes at night?
Fan had taken a fair number of psychology classes when she was in graduate school, which influenced her belief that urban planning needs be grounded in what makes its customers—the people who live and work in these environments—happy. “[Urban planners] talk about improving the quality of life for our city residents, but we won’t be able to improve people’s well-being without knowing their lived experience,” she says.
The challenge was, researchers lacked a reliable way to measure emotions about transportation experiences. That gap turned into an opportunity for Fan and her colleagues at the University. By the time she arrived at the U of M in 2008—Fan is a professor at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs—smartphone technology was also going mainstream. That made it possible for study participants to log their activities themselves.
In 2009, Fan led a U of M team that included Chen-Fu Liao (M.S.M.E. ’96, Ph.D. ’16) and School of Public Health Associate Professor Julian Wolfson to develop a smart phone app to capture people’s travel behaviors and their state of mind when they are on the move.
Between 2011 and 2018, Fan and her colleagues led five research projects to improve the app, which they named Daynamica and patented in 2017. One of the first studies, led by Fan, used Daynamica to collect data on the daily trips and activities of 350 Twin Cities residents. (All data is uploaded to a secure server and is never sold to a third party.)
Among the findings: Roads by hospitals have negative associations whereas roads along the Mississippi River have positive associations. Fan says these findings can have a meaningful impact on how urban road networks are planned.
“Daynamica is easy to use and easy to set up,” says Andy Becker (Ph.D. ’22), who worked at Daynamica as a senior project manager while he was in graduate school. “It has this breadth of data and information associated with it that you can’t get with other data collection services ... you can target your research questions in a way that’s unparalleled.”
Daynamica has also expanded into other fields, including health care research. A current study, funded by the National Cancer Institute, is assessing the time burden of cancer care so that health care providers will be able to better customize treatment plans.
“If you think about the time before cancer and the time after you were [diagnosed], your before-cancer activities get reduced. So you suddenly have to spend a lot of time on just getting yourself treated,” she explains. “And if a person is a single mother and doesn’t have a lot of support from family and friends, a treatment plan that requires significant time is not very suitable.”
Daynamica became a company in 2018 and is headquartered in Chanhassen, Minnesota. In addition to health and transportation, the company serves a range of academic researchers and government agencies that are interested in human data in daily life settings.