Apps made in Pittsburgh are improving our lives

Your smartphone could soon know more about you than you know about yourself.

CMU’s Human Computer Interaction Institute is developing a mobile app that watches over your mental well-being in helping to diagnose depression.

The name of the app is Big Black Dog, which pretty much describes the feeling many people have when they’re struggling with depression, says Jason Hong, principal researcher. “It’s that feeling of being followed.”

Still in development, researchers are working closely with psychiatrists to develop a platform that gathers information, even while you sleep.

“Smartphones are intimate devices that have all this data about us,” he points out.

For example, the app records any interaction you have with your phone during the night such as how much it is moved and used. Sleep data will be gathered on the time you go to sleep and wake up along with the quality of your sleep.

Social relationships are tracked through your texts and calls as well as activity on social media. This is helpful to know because studies show that people with stronger social support get sick less often, he says.

The information will be useful in helping doctors to understand behaviors and stressors that are coming into play. After a patient has recovered from a depressive episode, the software may help prevent the a future recurrence by alerting individuals to early warning signs.

“We’re not trying to replace medical professionals, but to provide information that will help to provide a higher quality of care,” he says.

Another app that will assist the blind with their Amazon shopping is underway. AlphaLab startup Conversant Labs is building mobile applications tailored to the needs of the blind.

Its first app, which will be released in the Apple Store in the spring of 2014, is a voice-enabled shopping assistant that assists with shopping on Amazon.com

“Our goal is to allow the blind and visually impaired to shop independently and easily using their mobile devices,” says Chris Maury of Conversant Labs.

The app works through a screen reader that navigates the Amazon site through keyboard commands that reads back or translates information into Braille.