Introducing the Pitch Day Finalists: Crowdsourcing Lifestyle Health Experiments

Oct 11, 2013, 8:00 AM, Posted by Pioneer Blog Team

Head shot of Chris Robertson. Christopher Robertson, visiting professor at Harvard Law’s Petrie-Flom Center

Christopher Robertson, a visiting professor at Harvard Law's Petrie-Flom Center (@PetrieFlom), wants to create a platform that engages social networks to enroll millions of people in large-scale randomized experiments. Robertson was one of eight finalists we invited to pitch us their ideas live and in person at the first-ever Pioneer Pitch Day. Read Robertson's 1,000-character proposal below, and join the discussion on Twitter at #pioneerpitch.

Pioneer: Congratulations on being a Pitch Day finalist! Tell us about the origins of your idea.

Christopher Robertson: I have long been fascinated by distributed decision making, where millions of individual choices are made that have aggregate social outcomes, and public health is a primary example of that dynamic.  As a philosopher and biomedical ethicist, I pay attention to the epistemic framework for these decisions.  It is especially important in the domain outside drugs and devices, which the FDA regulates.  In a world where talk is cheap – every exercise guru or pill pusher says that their product is best – how can consumers make smart decisions about their own health?  That question demands a robust institutional framework for producing knowledge, which can be trusted and relied upon.

Pioneer: What do you believe is the most innovative aspect of your idea?

Robertson: The most innovative part is to use randomization to actually intervene in the lives of a broad swath of the public, and to connect individuals through their social networks and networked devices to produce knowledge.

Pioneer: Who is an innovative thinker who has inspired your own work — why and how?

Robertson: John Dewey is a philosopher and educator who pioneered much of my own thinking about how the public and individuals interact constructively.

Proposal Submission: Use Randomization and Social Networking to Crowd Source Rigorous Lifestyle Health Experiments

Randomization is the primary tool for scientists to make causal inferences. The public too loves games of chance: gambling and lotteries are huge industries and important pastimes. Can these be linked? Lifestyles drive much of health spending, but the public is prudent to be wary of elite claims to knowledge (think: new fasting diets based on tiny studies, and the reversal of decades of sodium advice). Let’s create a platform that engages social networks to enroll millions of people in large-scale randomized experiments. Use mobile phones, apps, and linked devices (e.g., cameras, activity monitors, and scales) to collect data and provide feedback and encouragement. Let citizen-scientists design their own studies, within a rigorous safe, scientific, and ethical environment. Even aside from the gold-standard scientific findings, behavioral science suggests that the pre-commitment, randomization, monitoring, and social support may help individuals try and succeed in lifestyle changes that would otherwise elude them.

Got a pioneering idea of your own? We’d love to hear from you.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.