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Digital Behavior Change

“Why don’t people do things that they know are good for them?” Professor Sean Young, trained as a behavioral and social psychologist, asked this when moving into medicine to research HIV prevention and other health topics. He learned that not only is stigma part of the problem but that technology offers a way to overcome it. “I applied insights from psychology to online behavior change interventions and saw we could change social norms.” Professor Young uses this approach to transform time-consuming and expensive community-based interventions into online variants that more efficiently reach the masses.

Detecting Problems Early

As executive director of the University of California Institute for Prediction Technology (UCIPT), Professor Young is also leveraging social and behavioral data to detect real-world problems. “By analyzing people’s behaviors, we can quickly detect and address problems that might arise from these behaviors,” he says. “For instance, the counties where a lot of people are talking or searching online about behaviors that put them at risk for HIV or opioid overdose are the same counties with higher rates of these issues one year later.” Working with public health officials, he is now developing tools that mine social data to identify potential areas of disease outbreak, crime, and poverty.

Hackathon Help

Professor Young aims to create maps and tools that let public officials identify where to apply interventions, and his citizen-driven approach taps into hackathons for help. Collaborating with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, he organized UCIPT’s Opioid Hackathon at UCI, which produced more than 20 potential software and data-based prototypes in 24 hours. “Normally, the hackathon is where it ends: people return to school or work the next day.” He is extending the reach of hackathons through follow-up activities that keep participants engaged with each other and with researchers to further develop the solutions.


“We can use technologies as a way of predicting and changing behavior, leading to positive and ethically delivered social change.”

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