By Jade Boyd
When Rice computer scientist Edward Knightly and his graduate student Joseph Camp began to design and build an experimental wireless network in 2003, they thought they were working on a model of how broadband wireless Internet might one day be provided to whole cities. Little did they know how far their network would reach.
The network they built, centered in East Houston’s working-class Pecan Park neighborhood, uses a new technology that is more efficient and less costly to operate than the Wi-Fi gear currently used in homes and businesses.
“We are supporting more than 4,000 users in three square kilometers with a fully programmable custom wireless network,” said Knightly. “This allows us to demonstrate our research advances at an operational scale.”
The project has drawn the attention of the National Science Foundation, which recently awarded $1.5 million to a Rice-led research team for the expansion of the network and the design and testing of experimental mobile systems — and something else: health-monitoring devices. Collaborating on the five-year project are researchers from the Methodist Hospital Research Institute, the nonprofit Technology For All (TFA) and the University of Houston’s Abramson Center for the Future of Health.|
The researchers will examine how patients with chronic diseases can use next-generation wireless networks, cell phones and health sensors to participate in their own medical treatment. Using sensors, patients with congestive heart failure, asthma or metabolic syndrome will be able to painlessly and noninvasively take stock of several key aspects of their health status on a daily basis.
“The community isn’t the kind of well-to-do neighborhood where this type of technology typically would be rolled out. As a result, people are knocking down our door to find out how our residents are using the network, what they think of it and how it’s affecting them.” —Will Reed
For example, an early design, called Blue Box, can compare current readings with a patient’s history and provide immediate, user-friendly feedback. By taking medical readings every day, rather than only during physician visits or crises, doctors may be able to manage chronic conditions more effectively.
Lin Zhong, a Rice assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering, is examining another of the network’s unrealized potentials by laying the foundation for long-term field studies in the community.
“My group is interested in how mobile devices like cell phones can provide IT access to underserved communities,” Zhong said, “particularly when they are coupled with low-cost wireless broadband networks.”
TFA President and CEO Will Reed said that when his organization first joined the project, he had no idea that it would lead medical researchers, anthropologists and other researchers to take such a keen interest in Pecan Park.
“The community isn’t the kind of well-to-do neighborhood where this type of technology typically would be rolled out,” he said. “As a result, people are knocking down our door to find out how our residents are using the network, what they think of it and how it’s affecting them.”