PhD Candidate Herman Saksono Empowers People with Data

June 26, 2020

By James Powers-Black

Herman Saksono believes technology should empower individuals. His work addresses health inequality, an important public health issue that has gained some much needed attention during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Saksono’s doctoral research has focused on helping to motivate people in low socioeconomic populations to increase physical activity, but he knows that behavior change is hard. A lot of research in computer science focuses on the individual, and that’s why he works with families. “Getting social support can really help make the behavior change more doable,” Saksono says, “and it’s more successful when done together in a family setting.”

A Khoury College PhD candidate who’ll complete the degree requirements in August 2020, Saksono designs social health technologies as part of his research to improve the health outcomes of low-income populations.

Storywell, an app he has developed, helps parents and guardians guide children to move more throughout each day. The app uses fictional narratives to prompt positive behaviors and reward users for meeting fitness goals, encouraging physical activity by rewarding families by unlocking new storybook chapters when they meet their fitness goals. In one story, a young elephant named Eli and his mother help Miss Antelope, whose red hat flies off her head by a strong wind. With his mother’s encouragement, Eli and she work up a sweat, getting their steps in for the day. Eli has a lot of fun and helps a friend.

Saksono’s research has been conducted with 18 families in Boston neighborhoods. Saksono says families have been responsive to exercising together. He explains, “Parents want to support their kids, so they use the app. Kids enjoy using the app, which encourages parents to use the app even more.”

Through these fun activities, the app collects, processes, and analyzes users’ personal health data, which in the field of computer science is called personal informatics. Although personal informatics has typically focused on individuals, it’s becoming more social by allowing users to share personal health data. In his dissertation, Saksono considers how to design new forms of interaction and reflection around this shared data. Saksono explains, “One feature I’m exploring is supporting observational learning by enabling families to share stories about a time when they were successful about being physically active. Parents sharing stories can inspire other parents to be more confident.”

The app also uses GPS to place users’ stories on a map. Saksono’s approach gives an approximate location but protects individuals’ privacy. “The map tells the collective story of how the community is trying to be active,” Saksono explains.

Although Saksono is committed to eliminating health inequality, he is driven by an even deeper goal. He explains, “I want people to have the information they need so they can make their own decisions.”

In an earlier project, Saksono focused on voting patterns in his country of origin, Indonesia. Using what he learned about qualitative data analysis from his advisor, Professor Andrea Grimes Parker, Saksono created a website to collect reports of erroneous tabulation of votes in the 2014 Indonesian presidential election. “My motivation was simple,” he explains. “If one wanted to say that the 2014 Indonesian election results were flawed (or not flawed), one had to be able to produce systematic evidence of any widespread flaws.” The response from citizens was so great that the National Election Commission of Indonesia used his website to address any tabulation errors.

Saksono is currently running a study similar to his doctoral research to examine the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and he’s finding that families in low socioeconomic populations have been “very resilient.” He explains, “They have found ways to be active with their children, although playgrounds in Boston are closed and many parks are often full of people on warmer days.” But he acknowledges that it’s challenging for families, especially for families with single caregivers and those who live in apartments. Given the constraints of social distancing, Saksono believes there’s a need for technology that connects families. He says, “This is a problem space in Human-Computer Interaction that I am currently investigating, and I hope I will be able to share the results soon!”

For Saksono, research is very social. He enjoys the entire development process, getting to meet the people who will use the technology, and hearing their stories of how they would use it in their homes, offices, schools. “We should care about diverse experiences that people have,” he says. “When you actually deploy technologies to the public, it’s valuable to get community members’ feedback.”

Saksono earned his bachelor of engineering from Universitas Gadjah Mada in Indonesia. Later, as he was finishing his master’s in computer science at Khoury College, Saksono was asked by Dr. Parker if he was interested in helping with her research project. He stayed for the PhD program. “We both see opportunities to help people through research,” he says of their work together.

He’s been impressed by his experience at Northeastern. “Northeastern has provided a lot of opportunities to work interdisciplinarily – in public health, for example. The diverse set of experiences I’ve had gives me an edge in the job market.”

In the future, Saksono plans to continue with his research, exploring other kinds of rewards, and has a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard in the fall. The research will be similar but allow him to go in some new directions. For the present, his focus is on finishing his dissertation and defending it in August. Looking ahead, he says, “I will be doing my postdoc at Harvard’s Center of Research on Computing and Society. I’ll start thinking about new research in September.”