Tool for assessing neighborhood health wins international award

This mobile app, honored by the Center for Active Design, enables citizens to educate city planners about neighborhood impediments to healthy living.

- By Kris Newby

Abby King

The Stanford Healthy Neighborhood Discovery Tool has won an award for excellence from the Center for Active Design, a nonprofit organization that promotes architecture and urban projects that can improve public health.

The software tool allows community advocates to document impediments to a neighborhood’s walkability, safety and access to healthy food by using tablet computers. It was among six projects to win an excellence award from the Center for Active Design. The awards were presented at a ceremony in New York City on May 11.

First tested in 2011, the software was designed by researchers from the Healthy Aging Research and Technology Solutions Laboratory at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, directed by Abby King, PhD, professor of health research and policy and of medicine. 

Using the built-in capabilities of mobile devices, the tool tracks users’ walking routes and allows residents to geographically tag hazardous locations, linking them with the users’ audio narratives and photographs. This crowd-sourced information can then be used to notify city planners about things that need to be fixed and improved, such as poorly lit walkways and unsafe crosswalks. In addition to the tool, the researchers have created guidelines for teaching residents and grassroots organizations how to persuasively communicate these community needs to city planners.

“It’s all about empowering citizens, particularly those from lower-income neighborhoods who historically have not had a voice in the design of their neighborhoods, to educate city officials about what’s important to them,” said King. “By putting a human face to these problems, it creates an urgency to the changes that need to be made.”

The benefits of these changes in the built environment — the man-made environment — go well beyond aesthetics: Research shows that people who live in places that promote walking, socializing and eating fresh foods are physically and mentally healthier than those who do not.

The lead researcher of the project, Sandra Winter, PhD, a research associate with the Stanford Prevention Research Center, has coordinated the pilot testing of the tool for use in rural and urban environments, and with older adults and adolescents. The tool’s interface has been translated into Spanish and Hebrew, and these versions have been used by researchers from National Institute of Public Health in Mexico and by a partnership in Israel between the University of Haifa and the Association for Planning and Development of Services for the Aged.

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