The mother’s arm is moving upwards: how are we able to see in her gesture the tender sweetness leading her to caress the cheek of her sleeping child or the inner violence preparing to hit the soldier’s cheek? How can we foresee in the heavy murderer’s hand movement a slight faltering revealing his fragile uncertainty in finishing his task, how can we measure the hesitation of the woman’s arms closing to protect her crying, in resonant dialogue with the bodies moving around her?”

As my ItsMe2 experience surely proves, I like a grandiose megaproject as much as the next man. I am glad therefore to discoverEn-TIme-Ment, which is a Horizon 2020 funded project in Italy whose investigators are not at all humble:

EnTimeMent aims at a radical change in scientific research and enabling technologies for human movement qualitative analysis, entrainment and prediction, based on a novel neuro-cognitive approach of the multiple, mutually interactive time scales characterizing human behaviour. Our approach will afford the development of computational models for the automated detection, measurement, and prediction of movement qualities from behavioural signals, based on multi-layer parallel processes at non-linearly stratified temporal dimensions, and will radically transform technology for human movement analysis. EnTimeMent new innovative scientifically-grounded and time-adaptive technologies operate at multiple time scales in a multi-layered approach: motion capture and movement analysis systems will be endowed with a completely n

ovel functionality, achieving a novel generation of time-aware multisensory motion perception and prediction systems. The proposed model and technologies will be iteratively tested and refined, by designing and performing controlled and ecological experiments, ranging from action prediction in a controlled laboratory setting, to prediction in dyadic and small group interaction. EnTimeMent scenarios include health (healing and support of everyday life of persons with chronic pain and disability), performing arts (e.g. dance), sports, and entertainment group activities, with and without living architectures. EnTimeMent will create and support community-building and exploitation with concrete initiatives, including a community of users and stakeholders, innovation hubs and SME incubators, as premises for the consolidation beyond the end of the project in a broader range of market areas.

This fuller page is even more entertainingly dramatic:

The mother’s arm is moving upwards: how are we able to see in her gesture the tender sweetness leading her to caress the cheek of her sleeping child or the inner violence preparing to hit the soldier’s cheek? How can we foresee in the heavy murderer’s hand movement a slight faltering revealing his fragile uncertainty in finishing his task, how can we measure the hesitation of the woman’s arms closing to protect her crying, in resonant dialogue with the bodies moving around her?

Of course, I am plotting a way to get on board this particular train.

Hype, The Life Study and trying to do too much

A while back I reviewed Helen Pearson’s, “The Life Project” in the TLS. I had previously blogged on the perils of trying to do too much and mission creep and overload.

From the original draft of the review (published version differed slightly):

Pearson is laudably clear that the story of the birth cohorts is also a study of failure; the failure of the NHS to improve the inequality of health incomes between social classes, the failure of educational reforms and re-reforms to broach the similar academic achievement gap. Indeed, the book culminates in a failure which introduces a darker tone to the story of the birth cohort studies.

Launched in January 2015, the Life Study was supposed to follow 80,000 babies born in 2015 and intended to be a birth cohort for the “Olympic Children.” It had a government patron in David Willetts, who departure from politics in May 2015 perhaps set the stage for its collapse. Overstuffed antenatal clinics and a lack of health visitors meant that the Life Study’s participants would have to self-select. The optimistic scenario has 16,000 women signing up in the first eighteen months; in the first six months, 249 women did. By October 2015, just as Pearson was completing five years of work on this book, the study had officially been abandoned.

Along with the cancellation of the National Institute for Health’s National Children’s Study in December 2014, this made it clear that birth cohorts have been victims of their own success. An understandable tendency to include as much potentially useful information as possible seemed to have created massive, and ultimately unworkable cohorts. The Life Study would have generated vast data sets: “80,000 babies, warehouses of stool samples of placentas, gigabytes of video clips, several hundred thousand questionnaires and much more” (the history of the 1982 study repeated itself, perhaps.) Then there is the recruitment issue. Pregnant women volunteering for the Life Study would “travel to special recruitment centres set up for the study and then spend two hours there, answering questions and giving their samples of urine and blood.” Perhaps the surprise is that 249 pregnant women actually did volunteer for this.

Pearson’s book illustrates how tempting mission creep is. She recounts how birth cohorts went from obscure beginnings to official neglect with perpetual funding issues to suddenly becoming a crown jewel of British research. Indeed, as I observe in the review, while relatively few countries  have emulated the NHS’ structure and funding model, very many have tried to get on the birth cohort train.

This situation of an understandable enthusiasm and sudden fascination has parallels across health services and research. It is particularly a risk in eHealth and connected health, especially as the systems are inherently complex, and there is a great deal of fashionability to using technology more effectively in healthcare. It is one of those mom-and-apple-pie things, a god term, that can shut down critical thinking at times.

Megaprojects are seductive also in an age where the politics of funding research loom large. The big, “transformative” projects can squeeze out the less ambitious, less hype-y, more human-scale approaches. It can be another version of the Big Man theory of leadership.

Whatever we do, it is made up of a collection of tiny, often implicit actions, attitudes, near-reflexes, and is embedded in some kind of system beyond ourselves that is ultimately made up of other people performing and enacting a collection of tiny, often implicit actions, attitudes, and near-reflexes.